August 26, 2014

What Should I Say At My Social Security Disability Hearing?

When I prepare my Indiana neighbors for their day in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), the majority of the conversation revolves around what type of questions the ALJ will ask them.  I have represented clients in front of many different judges, and I have found that each ALJ has a unique style of asking questions – some ask a lot of questions; others prefer to have the representative take most of the client’s testimony.  Therefore, I try to tailor each of my clients’ preparation to be ready for the particular judge who will be hearing the case.  In spite of their differences, though, in my experience most judges cover the same general topics in their hearings.

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Many, but not all, judges are going to check your credibility.  While objective test results can prove that you have a certain medical diagnosis, the severity of the pain or other symptoms you experience due to that diagnosis can only be explained by you.  Therefore, the judge will likely ask you to explain your symptoms, rate your pain, or describe the ways your pain or other symptoms limit your ability to perform certain tasks.  If a judge believes you are exaggerating or lying about these things, you may find yourself with an unfavorable outcome.  I try to always tell my clients to be truthful yet realistic about what they can or cannot do.  In my experience, credibility is especially important for my clients whose disabilities cannot be diagnosed with objective testing, like mental illness, fibromyalgia, or migraines.

Most judges will ask you about your activities of daily living.  These can include but are not limited to cleaning your home, doing dishes, laundry, yard work, bathing or showering, dressing yourself, taking care of children, shopping, using the computer, hobbies, and going out with friends and family, just to name a few.  While most of us do these things without thinking too much about them, the Social Security Administration (SSA) often uses an individual’s ability to perform these tasks as a way to determine whether the individual could perform work-related tasks.  It can be especially difficult for people who have been dealing with their disabilities for a long time, because many of them have developed coping skills that allow them to perform these tasks; after all, even if you are disabled you still have to eat and wear clothes and interact with your family.  However, often I will ask a client if she can clean her house, and she will simply answer, “Yes,” without additional explanation.  If an ALJ hears an answer like that, he might assume that my client can sweep, dust, and mop her house from top to bottom without any difficulties.  After I ask a few more questions, though, my client often will explain that she is only able to do a little bit of the cleaning, and a family member helps with the rest; or perhaps she can spend fifteen minutes tidying her living room, but then she must sit down and rest for thirty minutes.   On the other hand, if I ask a client whether he can do yard work and he simply says, “No,”  but his medical records show that he told his doctor he hurt himself pruning the bushes in his front yard, a judge may think my client was dishonest.  If my client had provided more details, he would have been able to explain to the judge that most of the time he can’t do yard work, and when he does try to do a few things around the yard, he usually ends up in bed for the next three days because his pain gets so much worse.   In my experience, it is very important to explain how you perform activities of daily living differently than a person without a disabling condition does.

It is important to remember why you are being asked the questions you are being asked.  The judge doesn’t care how clean your house is, or how great of a parent you are because you take such good care of your kids and go to all of their extra curricular activities.  The judge is trying to figure out if you can do work-like activities by evaluating how well you are able to perform typical daily activities.  It is important to let the ALJ know exactly how your disability affects your everyday life.

In summary, judges are people, and they conduct their hearings differently and may put different amounts of emphasis on various aspects of your disability claim.  Your job at the hearing is to be truthful and to explain how your disability prevents you from securing and/or maintaining full time employment.  A qualified Social Security disability attorney or representative may be able to help you understand the importance of what you say at your hearing.  This blog should not be considered legal advice; it is a summary of my experiences in practicing Social Security disability law.

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