February 18, 2015

Why Do they Ask All of those Questions at Social Security Disability Hearings?

The day of your Social Security disability hearing has arrived, and you are probably filled with anxiety and wondering what it is going to be like. Although I can’t cure my clients of all of their hearing-day jitters, I do make sure I spend about an hour talking to my clients prior to the hearing date so they will know what to expect. I describe what the hearing will be like from the time they enter the hearing room to the time they leave. We also go over all of the questions that the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) tend to ask during the hearing. One reason I go through these “practice questions” with my client is to prevent the client from being surprised by what the questions are. Another reason is to prevent me from being surprised by how the client answers them.

The first questions the ALJ asks you will typically be very easy, including your name, address, and Social Security number. He might ask about your height and weight and whether you are right- or left-handed. The judge may also ask you about your living arrangements – whether you live in a house, apartment, or mobile home; who lives there with you; and your source of income. The best way to answer these questions is honestly and simply. Remember to stay on topic. Most of my clients are itching to talk about their disabling conditions right away, and that is understandable, but the judge needs to get through these questions before moving on.

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Next the ALJ will most likely ask you about jobs you have performed in the past. Social Security’s disability rules say that if your condition allows you to return to any of the work you have done in the past fifteen years, you are not disabled. Therefore, the ALJ will need to get information about the kinds of work you have done. Many of my clients have difficulty remembering that far back, especially if they have had more than two or three jobs in the last two decades. The ALJ has access to information about how much you earned each year and the names of the companies who paid you. You will need to fill the judge in about how long you worked at each job, whether the job was full-time or part-time, and what type of work you did. The ALJ will also want to know how much time you spent at each job sitting, walking, and standing, as well as how much weight you were required to lift. You may also be asked to explain whether you were a supervisor, whether you had to interact with customers, or whether you had to write reports. In my experience, you can hurt your case if you try to exaggerate the skills you needed to do your job or try to make the job look physically easier than it actually was. The more responsibility a worker has at a job, the more likely he or she has skills that might transfer to an easier type of job; the more skills you have that transfer to physically easier jobs, the more difficult it might be to show that you are unable to work. Additionally, it is important to really think about how much weight your job required you to lift. For example, one of my clients told me that she didn’t have to lift much weight at her job because she spent the majority of the time at a work station assembling a product. However, she forgot that at various times during the day, she was required to carry boxes of materials, and the boxes weighed up to fifty pounds. It is much easier to prove that a person’s disabilities keep her from being able to work a job that requires the ability to lift fifty pounds than it is to show that she cannot work a job that only requires her to lift ten pounds. Again, it is important to answer these questions truthfully and straightforwardly. This is not the time to explain to the ALJ how much your job aggravated your medical conditions or to tell a long story about how you were unjustly fired by an unaccommodating employer. During this part of the hearing, the judge wants to get a basic description of your work history, nothing more.

Finally, and at this point in the hearing you probably thought they might never get around to it, the judge will ask about your disabling condition(s). Many Administrative Law Judges will start by asking you what medical condition most severely affects your ability to work. In my experience, it is very important to stay focused. For example, if you are talking about your back pain, try not to get sidetracked talking about symptoms related to your depression. The ALJ will usually make sure that you have a chance to talk about everything you want to cover. The ALJ may ask about doctors you are seeing, procedures you have had performed, and the pain and limitations you are experiencing because of your disability. Do not exaggerate your symptoms. These ALJs preside over hundreds of hearings a year, and they have met claimants with almost any medical condition you can imagine. It is very important that the judge knows you are telling the truth about your symptoms rather than telling him what you think he wants to hear. When the ALJ is done asking you questions, your attorney or representative will have the opportunity to ask questions. I usually ask my clients questions about topics I think the ALJ missed, or I ask questions to help my client clarify a previous answer to the judge if I think it is necessary.

Other questions typically asked during the hearing revolve around “Activities of Daily Living” (ADLs). If the ALJ thinks that the activities you do at home during the day are sufficiently “work-like,” he may find that your condition is not disabling enough to prevent you from working full time. It is important to provide enough details so the judge gets a clear picture of what you are and are not able to do. Make no mistake, if you answer these questions incorrectly, you may find yourself with an unfavorable decision. If the ALJ asks you if you can clean your house, and you say “yes” without further explanation, the ALJ may believe you can work as a janitor. However, if you can only clean your house by working for thirty minutes at a time and then taking a two-hour break because of pain and fatigue, you’d better give the judge those details. Another example would be the judge asking if you can drive. A simple “yes” might imply that you can put the family in the car and drive them to Florida without a problem, when the truth is you can only drive fifteen minutes at a time because of pain. I know that my clients are nervous the day of the hearing, but it is difficult when I have a client who answers all of the questions well during hearing preparation and then goes into the hearing and gives monosyllabic answers to all of the judge’s questions.

Your hearing may not go exactly as I have described above, but in my experience the majority of Social Security disability hearings are pretty similar. It is important to tell the truth at your hearing; the ALJ likely has a good idea of what your answers will be because he is familiar with your medical records. While it is important to be prepared to answer the judge’s questions and to avoid the common mistakes I mentioned earlier, it is also important not to come off as rehearsed. The hearing is your opportunity to speak directly to the judge so he knows what it is like to live with your disabilities.

My experience as an Indiana Social Security Disability Attorney may vary from others practicing in my field. This blog is a reflection of my experiences alone and should not be taken as legal advice.

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