Social Security Disability Hearings Tips

Here we provide social security disability hearing tips and advice.  Many of my clients express anxiety, stress, fear, and nervousness toward their upcoming hearing for Social Security Disability benefits.  Unlike Workers Compensation, where an injured worker may testify twice, with social security disability hearings, there is one hearing.  Claimants have one shot to convince an otherwise skeptical administrative law judge that they are indeed disabled and unable to work full time.

Here are some tips we provide to our clients as they prepare for their disability hearing.

  1. Relax.  The ALJ’s at the Harrisburg Office of Disability and Adjudication Review (ODAR) hearings office are nice individuals.  They are not going to attack you personally, attack your credibility, or make you feel uncomfortable.  They are going to ask you questions that you can answer.  There is no need to be nervous that you will be treated poorly.  It will not happen nor should your counsel allow it to happen.  Just relax.
  2. Answer the Question that is Asked.  Listen to the question that you are asked, then provide a direct answer.  Seems simple.  Often times though, a claimant may not fully understand the question, but yet, they try an answer what they think the question really was that was asked.   Other times, claimants may be quite nervous, and not really hear or listen to the full question.  If you do not understand a question, simply ask the ALJ or your attorney to repeat the question.  Asking to have a question repeated is much better than providing an inappropriate answer that doe snot addressed the question that was asked.  If you think taking notes on the questions being asked by the ALJ or your attorney would be helpful, then do so.  You may be asked some tough questions about your condition, about what is in your medical records, about your past employment, etc . . . Avoiding to answer a question is a sure way to sink your case.  ALJ’s will pick up on the fact you are trying to avoid giving an answer.  Don’t do it.  Just answer the question.
  3. Be clear and concise.  Do not ramble on, go off subject, or try and give a long winded answer that you think will be impressive.  Straying a way from the actual question asked will likely bore the ALJ, which will not be good for your case.  You should prepare yourself to answer questions.  We meet with our clients to prepare for hearings and review the types of questions that you could be expected to have to answer. Being nervous can cause a person to ramble on.  Practice with a friend, family member, or your attorney.  We prepare our clients.
  4. Be clear on symptoms and limitations.  It’s critical to specify your pain levels, symptoms, limitations, and functional deficits in your testimony.  Vague answers will sink your case.  Let’s use an example.  When an ALJ asks you to describe your pain, a response like, ‘it hurts’, isn’t acceptable.  Be descriptive.  Specify where it hurts.  Is the pain centered in your low back only?  Does it run into either or both legs?  Does it cause any other problems?  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most severe, describe your daily pain.  Saying your daily pain level is a 10, everyday, is likely not going to be persuasive to an ALJ.  Answering questions with details will help draw a more clear picture of you and your struggles for the ALJ.  Use detail for questions about your functional limitations.  As an example, if an ALJ asks you how long you can sit for a period of time, a bad response would be “not long’.  That tells the ALJ absolutely nothing.  Be specific.  Can you only sit for 15 minutes at a time?  If so, then what happens?  Do you have to then stand up?  Do you have to walk around?  If so, for how long before you can sit again?  The way I describe testimony to my client is for them to think of themselves as an artist.  The testimony of the claimant paints a detailed picture of the claimant’s disability and its impact on their daily life.  In order for another, such as the ALJ, to know what picture is suppose to be, the picture must have detail.  In other words, good details to explain what the picture is and what it is not.  It is your painting of your disability.  Generalized answers like ‘it hurts’ or I can’t lift much” or I can’t sit long” do nothing to full in the details.
  5. Be ready for to explain medical records.  Let me explain.  I do not mean that it is your responsibility to explain your medical records in detail.  You likely do not even understand medical records.  However, if there has been a significant gap in medical treatment, be ready to explain it.  Perhaps you had no health insurance, no money, no transportation, and therefore could not treat.  Be honest. Giving untruthful answers is the quickest way to sink your claim.  Always remember, the ALJ has reviewed all your medical records.  So making things up, like facts and symptoms, just isn’t a wise thing to do.  If there is a period of time you were telling your doctor you were feeling better, then explain it.  Perhaps you had a brief time where your symptoms were a bit better.   Perhaps you just had an injection that provided temporary relief.  There isn’t anything wrong with that.  However, lying about it is a sure way to get your claim denied.  If your doctor has talked to you about pain medication abuse or has denied you pain medicine, you need to be prepared to address that issue.  You need to speak with your attorney about that.
  6. You will be asked about an average day.  Nearly in every case, since claimants are not working, the question will be asked, ‘tell me about your average day’.  You need to think about this question.  Don’t be afraid to write down notes to refresh your memory on things you may want to say in response to this question. You will be asked to describe what you do around the house.  Do you cook, do laundry, clean?  To say NO to all of these types things generally won’t be believable.  Describe hobbies you used to be able to do, but your disabilities have caused you to cease those type of activities.  Does someone help you on a daily or weekly basis to perform certain tasks, like laundry and groceries?   These questions are important because it helps to fill in that detail of your picture of your disability.
  7. Do not exaggerate.  This is important.  ALJs have heard hundreds, if not thousands, of cases.  Do not make your symptoms sound worse than what they are.  Your medical records, history you provided, physical examination results, and diagnostic tests are well documented in medical records the ALJ has reviewed.  Exaggerations beyond findings will undermine your credibility.  ALJs are well-trained to determine whether an individual is magnifying or exaggerating their symptoms.  Just be honest with your answers.  Additionally, avoid answers that indicate you are in pain ‘all the time’, ‘everyday’ ‘always’, ‘my pain is a 10 all the time’.  ALJs just won’t believe that testimony.  Additionally, do no exaggerate your limitations of what you can and can’t do.

The point here is to relax, answer the questions clearly, and be honest.  Those are the keys to painting a much clearer picture of your disability and limitations because of your disability.

Going to your social security disability hearing without legal counsel is not a smart idea.  We understand the process, we know your ALJs, and we [are[pare our clients for their one shot hearings.  If you have applied for and been denied social security disability benefits, we can help.  We handle social security cases in both Pennsylvania and Maryland.  Call Mooney & Associates today for a FREE CONSULTATION at 717-200-HELP or 1-877-632-4656.  Additionally, if you have not applied for disability benefits yet, call us.  We handle the application process for you.

Mark Buterbaugh

Attorney representing injured workers and Social Security Disability clients in Pennsylvania and Maryland.