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SSDI and SSI: Preparing for and appearing at your ALJ hearing

At our New York City law firm, our attorneys regularly prepare disabled clients for administrative hearings before administrative law judges, called ALJs. The ALJ hearing is the third level of consideration by the Social Security Administration or SSA of a claimant's application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits or Supplemental Security Income, known respectively as SSDI or SSI.

Each type of benefit requires that the SSA find the claimant to be disabled. The definition of disability is unique to the Social Security Act. Specifically, to be eligible, the claimant must have a severe impairment or combination of impairments expected to last at least one year or result in death and that prevents the claimant from substantial gainful activity, meaning broadly work that brings in more than a very low level of wages.

The ALJ will need to evaluate your impairments and their impact on your ability to carry out your daily activities as well as on your ability to perform basic work activities. The ALJ will also look at your age, education, past work and what work activities you may still be able to perform after considering your medical limitations.

Preparing for the hearing

Your lawyer will review the paper record that the SSA has developed for your case, which will include mostly medical records. Any medical assessments or updates that should be obtained can be arranged as soon as possible so that the resulting evidence is ready for the ALJ’s review before the hearing.

Legal counsel will also thoroughly prepare you for your testimony at the hearing and explain what you can expect to occur, including the questions you can expect from the judge.

What will happen during the hearing?

At the hearing, the ALJ will ask you questions about your disabilities, their symptoms and your limitations. Your lawyer will also ask you questions to bring out anything important not in the record or underdeveloped in the evidence. You should thoroughly and carefully testify about your subjective impairments that medical tests or observations cannot measure. Subjective complaints include pain, fatigue, weakness and symptoms of mental impairments like depression, anxiety, ADHD, trauma, and others.

Sometimes a family member or other person who knows you well may be a witness to describe his or her observations of how your medical problems impact your life.

The ALJ will likely also have a medical expert and a vocational expert at the hearing. Both the judge and your attorney will be able to ask questions of both experts. The medical expert will have had access to your medical records and will be asked their opinion on your resulting limitations.

The vocational expert is likely to be closely questioned about whether considering your medical limitations and other vocational factors there are jobs available that you could perform in significant numbers in the national economy. Your legal counsel is likely to vigorously question the bases and quality of the VE’s opinions.

Many claims are approved after ALJ hearings at which more detailed information can come out and evidence be developed. If it is not, review by the Appeals Counsel or even federal court is still available.

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