The COVID-19 pandemic has affected much of how Social Security conducts its business, including how it holds disability hearings. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a claimant had the option to appear either in person or by video teleconferencing for his/her disability hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). In March 2020, Social Security temporarily closed its hearing offices and began to hold hearings exclusively by telephone. Over a year later, Social Security hearing offices have remained closed. Recently, Social Security has mailed the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Hearing Agreement Form (“Form”) to those claimants waiting on a hearing date. Our clients frequently contact us about this Form and seek advice on their options. We turn to our experience with Social Security to lay out the pros and cons of each option to allow our clients to make an informed decision. This blog breaks down the current options available to a claimant for his/her disability hearing on the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Hearing Agreement Form and offers insight into each possibility, based on our practice.
The first option available on the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Hearing Agreement Form allows an opportunity for a claimant to agree to a telephone hearing. As noted above, Social Security has been holding telephone hearings since March 2020. Furthermore, Social Security has not given any indication as to when it may reopen its hearing offices and return to in-person hearings. As such, agreeing to a telephone hearing offers a claimant an opportunity for his/her hearing to be scheduled the quickest. However, although agreeing to a telephone hearing offers a claimant a chance for the fastest resolution, the major downside is that it does not allow for the ALJ to observe and have direct face to face interaction with the claimant. We understand that many of our clients have already waited long enough and simply cannot afford to wait for an indefinite period of time. We also understand that some of our clients might be willing to wait longer to have their day in court and to directly appear before the ALJ. Ultimately, we ask our clients to decide whether a telephone hearing would be best for their respective situations.
The second option available on the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Hearing Agreement Form allows an opportunity to agree to an online video hearing using Microsoft Teams. Social Security describes Microsoft Teams as a third-party application which offers a claimant the option of appearing by video using a computer, tablet, or mobile device with an Internet connection. Unfortunately, in our experience, we have yet to encounter an ALJ or a hearing office who has made use of this platform. Thus, although agreeing to an online video hearing is listed as an option on the Form, we have advised our clients that this option is not available from a practical perspective.
The third option available on the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Hearing Agreement Form allows an opportunity for the claimant to neither agree to a telephone hearing or an online video hearing using Microsoft Teams and to wait for an in-person hearing. Under normal circumstances, an in-person hearing is certainly preferable as it allows a claimant to have direct face to face interaction with the ALJ. The major drawback with this option is that Social Security has not given a timetable as to when its hearing offices will resume in-person services. Our office is certainly hopeful that Social Security will go back to holding in-person services, sooner rather than later, but it is truly anyone’s guess on when that might be. We ensure that our clients are made aware of this uncertainty to help them decide if this option may or may not work best for them.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Social Security has adapted the way it holds disability hearings to allow for claimants to have an opportunity to still have their case resolved before an ALJ. In our experience, the options on the COVID-19 Public Health Hearing Agreement Form boil down to whether the claimant is agreeable to a telephone hearing or whether he/she is willing to wait for an in-person hearing. We strive to give our clients all the information needed to choose which option is best for their situation.