Element 7: Preparing for a Successful ALJ Hearing
The majority of individuals who apply for Social Security disability beneftis will have to appear for a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The ALJ will ultimately decide whether or not you are "disabled" under Social Security guidelines. Hence, preparation and strategy by the Attorney prior to your hearing is of the utmost importance.
The steps for a successful hearing begin from the first time you meet with the attorney, and include the following:
1. Having a Realistic Theory of Disability.
Just believing you are disabled, or saying that you are disabled, does not make you disabled by Social Security standards. Social Security requires a legal justification, or "theory", that you are disabled under their guidelines. Social Security disability law can be extremely complicated.
Beginning at initial client contact, we give careful consideration to an individual's age, work history, medical condition, and Residual Functional Capacity (RFC). [See our 3/21/13 blog post entitled A Successful Disability Claim - More than Just a Diagnosis] The client's RFC tells the Attorney what limitations exist as a result of an individual's medical condition.
2. Formulating and Implementing a Medical Evidence Plan.
Medical evidence, including chart notes with clinical and objective findings, are crucial to a successful disability case. I often tell clients: "If you have no evidence, then you have no case."
A successful medical evidence plan includes, (1) obtaining all relevant medical evidence, (2) examining the evidence and comparing it to the Social Security/ODAR (hearing office) electronic file to see what medical evidence might be missing, and (3) supplementing the client's file with any additional evidence and/or evaluations to support disability.
3. Refining and Executing a Theory (or Theories) of Disability.
After all the medical evidence is obtained, the Attorney will summarize the evidence and argue a theory (or theories) of disability in accordance with Social Security disability law. This step will result in the filing of a Pre-Hearing Memorandum submitted before the hearing to the ALJ.
Additionally, prior to the client's hearing the Attorney will (1) analyze any weaknesses in the case and prepare to counter them, (2) prepare to cross-examine Vocational and Medical experts who may testify at the hearing, and (3) explain any past or current earnings that might affect eligibility for disability benefits.
4. Attending the Hearing with the Claimant
The last step in this process is, of course, to go the hearing in front of the ALJ with the Claimant. At the hearing the ALJ will take testimony from the Claimant, and give the attorney a chance to ask questions as well.
A Medical Expert (ME) may appear by telephone at the hearing to offer further opinion to the ALJ about the Claimant's physical and/or mental condition(s).
A Vocational Expert (VE) will always appear at the hearing either in person, or by telephone. The purpose of VE testimony is for the ALJ to learn more about an individual's work history, and to give his/her opinion about whether the Claimant can do any other work.
The attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine all witnesses to put the Claimant's case in the best light for the ALJ.
All in all, a successful disability claim requires a tremendous amount of preparation on behalf of the Attorney representative. Having an experienced and motivated representative is essential to a successful case.
Eric J. Patrick, Esq.