Ease Your Stress When It’s Time to See a Judge

Watch Tom Bothwell explain in this video what your Social Security Disability hearing will be like and how to prepare. Keep reading for a full transcript of Tom’s advice:

Introduction to Your Disability Hearing

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Good afternoon. I’m Tom Bothwell. I’d like to talk to you about your Social Security hearing. If we’re showing you this message it’s probably because your hearing, after months or perhaps a year or more of delay, is finally getting scheduled. It’s our hope that this message will help prepare you for the hearing perhaps and hopefully put you at ease and take away some of the mystery of what this hearing is all about so that you’ll go into it understanding better what’s going to happen.

These social security hearings are not like courtroom TV, either courtroom that you see on TV or even a real life courtroom. For example, there is no jury. There’s no lawyer on the other side. There’s no prosecutor or lawyer for the Social Security Administration trying to show that you’re not disabled. This is basically between us and the judge. The setting is more informal than real life courtroom. As I say, there’s no jury. It’s just between us and the judge and there aren’t the kind of formalities that there are in court.

Before we walk into the hearing room the judge will have already reviewed the file about you, so when we walk in there he or she will think he knows a lot about you. The file includes medical reports from your doctors and other sources. We have sent much of that information to the judge and the Social Security Administration has also gathered some of those records. These hearings are private. The door will be closed. I’m hoping that you will understand that the hearings are confidential and that you’ll be willing to talk about your health problems.

This is not the time to be scared about, or afraid, or unwilling to talk about your health problems. There are lots of times in our society or our culture where if someone says, “Hello, how are you”, you’re supposed to say, “I’m fine, how are you.” It’s regarded as impolite or just not right to talk about your health problems, but this is not one of those situations. The judge needs to understand what kind of health problems that you have that make you unable to work.

The Start of Your Hearing

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When we first walk into the hearing the judge and I usually talk lawyer talk back and forth to make sure that all of the paperwork is in order. He’ll ask whether I’ve reviewed the file and whether I have any objections to any of the reports. You can just sit back and watch that happen. Then after that occurs the judge will start talking to you. He or she will introduce himself or herself, explain that the judge has had nothing to do with the prior decisions in which you’ve been turned down and that he or she will make a new decision based upon a combination of all of the medical reports, which are in the file plus what is said at the hearing.

Who Will Be At Your Hearing?

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There may be one or two or perhaps three other people in the hearing room. These hearings are tape recorded and typically the judge will have an assistant there operating the tape recorder. There may also be either what is called a vocational expert or a doctor or other kind of medical expert. If the medical expert or vocational expert is at the hearing that person is there at the request of the judge. That person is being paid for by the Social Security Administration and usually that person is there because the judge thinks that there may be some questions that come up at the hearing that person, with his or her expertise, may be able to answer.

That person will typically not be talking to you directly. That person will just answer questions from the judge or questions from me. The way that the judge gets information from you at this hearing is by you answering questions. You’re not expected to walk into the hearing with a speech prepared to convince the judge about why you’re not disabled. The judge understands that you’re not a lawyer or a doctor and you don’t talk lawyer talk and you don’t have the medical expertise to talk about your medical problems the way your doctors do.

How To Answer Questions at Your Hearing

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Your job is simply to answer questions. So let’s talk about what those questions might be or how that process works. Some judges start the hearing by asking you questions and some judges will look at me and say, “Okay Mr. Bothwell you can start asking your client some questions.” Either way, whether the questions come from the judge or from me, I have the following advice: Just listen to the question carefully.

Some questions can be answered by saying yes or no. Some questions need some explanation. For example the judge may ask you just an open ended questions such as, “Tell me why you feel like you can’t work.” That obviously is a question that can’t be answered by a simple yes or no. Just try to take your time and explain to the judge why you feel you can’t work, what kind of health problems you have that prevent you from working, what kinds of things you used to do when you worked that you can no longer do and why and so on and so forth.

Just tell the truth. The obvious part of that is don’t make things sound worse than they are. To use a silly example if you go in there and say you need a wheelchair to get around with, if you really haven’t needed that the judge will probably look at you and say he’s read all of the medical reports and there’s nothing in there about any wheelchair and he thinks you’re lying and so you lose your case. That’s the obvious part of just telling the truth.

But the other part of it that I think is just as important is you need to tell it like it is. As I said before, this is not the time to be afraid to talk about your health problems. What I hope for you is that the next day after the hearing or the week after or maybe after you get the judge’s decision, I hope you don’t say, “Oh gee, I wish I’d been willing to explain better and open up and talk about my problems.” I want the judge to get it. It’s your job and my job to help the judge get it.

What ALJs/Judges Will Be Like at Your Hearing

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All of these judges have different personalities. Some are very friendly, they’ll make you laugh or smile and they’ll try to say things in the beginning especially to put you at ease. Other judges it’s just that their personality isn’t that way and you won’t walk away from the hearing perhaps thinking oh what a nice person that was or what a warm and fuzzy individual. But I believe in the system enough that I believe the judge wants to get it, wants to understand why you feel like you can’t work.

The judge will work hard at reading the medical reports to understand your problems. We don’t have judges who feel that if they approve too many cases the money will come out of their pocket. I believe that a judge will have no problem whatsoever approving your claim for disability if we can prove that you can’t work.

What Information Will You Need to Remember at Your Hearing?

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Don’t worry about specific details like exactly what day of the week or what month you last worked. At these hearings you’re not expected to remember the kind of trivial questions. You will be asked questions about approximately when did you last work, that kind of thing. Just answer the question as best as you can. If you’re asked a question where you can’t remember the answer really then just say, “I’m sorry, judge, I can’t remember.” Sometimes we have health problems that make it harder for us to remember. Sometimes we take medication that impairs our ability to remember. If that’s what’s going on with you feel free to explain that to the judge.

How Long Will Your Hearing Take?

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These hearings usually take less than an hour. It’s unusual. We’ve waited so long for this hearing, many months, often more than a year, and then when we finally get to the hearing the hearing usually lasts less than an hour. Sometimes, believe it or not, the hearing just lasts something like 10 or 15 minutes. If the judge has reviewed the file and he or she decides that just a few questions were needed to be answered it might take a short time like that. The longest hearing that I’ve ever had in doing this for more than 30 years is about an hour and a half so I think you can plan on your hearing probably taking less than an hour.

What Should You Wear to Your Hearing?

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As far as what to wear it’s not necessary for the men to wear coat and tie or the women to wear a skirt. You should just wear clean clothes and you don’t have to be very formal. I want the judge to see that you’re a good person. I want the judge to see that if you could be working you would be working, but you can’t and therefore you need his help. Of course be respectful. If it seems to you like the judge has gotten off on the wrong side of the bed or what have you and he or she is a little ornery that day, it won’t do you any good to try to lock horns with the judge.

If the judge says something that is perhaps offensive to you just try to let it roll off your back because it really won’t do any good to get into an argument or something like that with the judge. As I say, I just want the judge to see you’re a good person and I want him to believe you and I want the judge to understand that you are telling the truth when you explain why you can’t work.

Common Questions at Many Social Security Disability Hearings

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I’d like to talk to you now about some of the common questions that come up at these hearings. These questions may not come up in your hearing or all of these questions may not come up at your hearing. As I say, sometimes these things are quite short. But I’d like to give you some idea of the kinds of questions that you’ll be asked. To begin with you’ll probably be asked if you’re currently working. More commonly you’ll be asked when’s the last time you worked. Again, as I say, don’t worry about a specific date; just try to estimate when you last worked. It may be more than months ago; it may be a year or more ago.

You’ll also be asked what kind of work did you do and why did that job end. Were you fired, did you quit, whether you were unable to do certain things and, if so, what? The first thing we have to show is why you are not able to return to any of the jobs that you’ve had in the past, not so much the distant far past. Social Security has a 15 year rule where the judge will be asking you questions about what kind of jobs have you had in the past 15 years. Do your best to try to remember what kind of jobs you’ve had. You don’t need to know or remember the name of the particular employer, but the important thing to describe to the judge, if you’re asked about this, is what kind of jobs, what kind of job titles, and what things did you do in your work if you’ve had jobs in the past 15 years.

Remember that a part of this process will be having to explain why you are no longer able to return to and do that kind of work anymore. One thing that I need to explain that I wish it weren’t so, but I need to caution you about how you describe what kind of work you’ve done in the past. This is not a job interview where typically we try to enthusiastically convince the listener that we can do practically anything if we’re just given an opportunity. This is a time where again I remind you to tell the truth, but at the hearing will not be a good time to exaggerate what kind of experience you have acquired in your past work.

Whether this is fair or not, the rules about these things are that the more experience you have, the more skills that you have, the more different things that you can do as far as work is concerned, it may be harder for you to get approved. A person for example who’s 55 years old who’s had only unskilled work experience with no education or not much of an education, if that person, for example, has a broken back or has had back surgery and can’t do that kind of work anymore it is often easier for us to get that person approved than someone who’s of the same age but who has lots of education and who has lots of experience in jobs working desk jobs or things such as that which aren’t hard physically.

I don’t want this judge to get a wrong impression about what kind of experience you have had so again with the reminder to tell the truth, but this is not the time to puff up or exaggerate your skills, because if the judge gets a wrong impression thinking that you do have more skills than you really do it may be even harder for you to be approved. Another kind of question that frequently comes up at these hearings is the judge or me asking you to describe your average day. For example with questions like when do you typically get up in the morning, when do you typically go to bed in the evening and what do you do in the meantime.

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