I hear this question probably more than any other question from my clients. When I was in law school, one of my professors told me, “The facts always matter,” and a Social Security disability case is no exception. It’s also important to know how Social Security applies its rules to the facts of your case when you are trying to show that you are unable to work. While there are many variables that affect your chances of winning your claim, I have found that some factors are more important than the others.
One of the first things I ask potential clients is whether or not they are seeing doctors. In order to find that you are disabled, Social Security must be able to find that you have a medically determinable impairment that affects your ability to work. You must also have medical records that support the statements you make about how badly your symptoms affect you. You can’t assume that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at your hearing will know that you are a trustworthy person who doesn’t exaggerate. Even if the ALJ does find that you are a credible person, he or she will still want to see objective testing (like x-rays or MRIs) and/or progress notes from your physician that back up your testimony. The ALJ will want proof that you are being treated by doctors who specialize in your type of impairments – for example, that you are seeing an orthopedic doctor if you have degenerative disc disease, a rheumatologist if you have fibromyalgia, a psychiatrist if you have bipolar disorder, or a neurologist if you have migraine headaches. If your doctor is willing to provide a written statement about your work-related limitations, it can also improve your chances of a favorable outcome.
Age, education, and work experience:
The Social Security Administration bases some of its decisions on your age, education, and prior work experience. In Social Security’s world, the older you are, the easier it might be to show that you are disabled under Social Security’s Medical Vocational Guidelines. Social Security recognizes that it becomes more difficult to compete for jobs as you get older. Therefore, if you are over 50 and don’t have education or transferable job skills that allow you to easily enter the work force, Social Security might find you disabled even if they think you are physically able to do sit-down work. People who are under the age of 50 can, of course, be found disabled under Social Security’s rules; it’s just that the rules are a little stricter for them. Many of my clients are under the age of 50, and their impairments are severe enough that they aren’t able to do any type of work. As their attorney, though, I must keep in mind that the level of proof we must bring to the hearing is typically a little higher than it is for my clients who are over 50.
Your credibility is important. You are being observed all the time. I don’t mean there are video cameras in your house; however, the Social Security workers, consultative examiners, ALJs, and even your own doctors are observing and writing down the things they see. For example, consultative examiners will watch you filling out forms and zipping your jacket to see how well you can use your hands. The person at the Social Security office who takes information for your application has a place on the form to write down observations about your behavior during the interview. Your doctors take notes about what you tell them, even in the casual conversations you have before or after your examination. Many of my clients are surprised when I prepare them for a hearing and they find out what their doctors have put in their notes – a patient who had back pain after walking all day at the State Fair, or another patient who hurt his elbow bowling. This is not to say that you should not tell your doctor the truth – the most important aspect of your credibility is your truthfulness! However, we do sometimes have to be ready at the hearing to give a full explanation about what the doctor wrote down. When I prepare my clients for hearings, I often find that something was taken out of context or just needs a little more explanation.
To give yourself the best chance at the hearing, tell me the truth before we get there! I don’t want any surprises, and I am sure you don’t either. I know what it takes to win a Social Security disability claim, but I also know how people lose their Social Security disability claims. If you are honest with me during the hearing preparation process, I can help you accentuate the positive aspects of your case and explain potential negative evidence. It is also very important to be honest with the judge. Hearings typically last only forty-five minutes to an hour, so ALJs are trained to ask questions to help them assess your truthfulness. The judge’s opinion of your credibility can be the factor that tips the scales in a close case.
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So do you have a good Social Security disability case? As you can see, there are many factors to consider, so this is not an easy question to answer. You might also notice that a lot of those factors are not completely under your control. (You cannot change your age, no matter how hard you try!) However, as this article has explained, there are a few things you can do to help make your case as strong as possible. It can also help to have an experienced Social Security disability attorney to help you prepare for your hearing by emphasizing the strong points and providing context for the weak points. I have represented thousands of Indiana residents before the SSA and find great satisfaction in helping individuals receive the benefits they deserve.