A disabling medical condition often leaves you unable to work, causing financial strain in addition to substantial medical bills. As a result, many seriously disabled American workers apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits without the help of an experienced SSDI attorney. The standard for obtaining SSDI benefits, however, is stringent. You must be suffering from a near total disability resulting from a qualifying medical condition that prevents you from engaging in any meaningful work. About 4 in 10 SSDI claimants must also attend a social security hearing with an administrative judge in order to claim benefits. While this hearing isn’t a traditional adversarial hearing, expert witnesses from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) may be there to fight your claim. This is where a social security disability attorney can make or break your SSDI case.
What to Expect at Your SSDI Hearing
SSDI applicants who aren’t approved for benefits initially or on appeal may have to attend a benefits hearing with an administrative judge for the SSA. You should expect the following at your SSDI hearing:
- This is a private hearing, so your friends and family typically cannot be present to speak on your behalf. Instead, you’ll appear before the judge with your attorney, if any, your witnesses, and the expert witnesses for the SSA.
- You’ll be expected to answer questions about your disability. This may include specifics about your medical condition, occupational history, and ability to work. Any misunderstanding about your condition or ability to work may affect your claim. For example, some disability claimants can “force” themselves to work, even if working causes them extreme pain. This doesn’t mean you “can” work for disability purposes.
- SSA experts may testify against you. Claiming disability is often an emotional process. You’re probably tired, in pain, and struggling financially. The last thing you need is to hear exert occupational therapists and physicians testify that you can work and are not as sick as your claim. Their job is to protect SSA funds, but this testimony can seem like a personal attack. Having an attorney on your side to refute this testimony and support you through the SSDI hearing process is essential.
- Your attorney can rebut expert testimony, speak on your behalf, and ensure you understand SSDI medical and occupational standards. An experienced SSDI lawyer can refute the information presented by the SSA’s expert witnesses and protect your interests. He or she knows the questions the judge should be asking and the evidence admissible and can enter an appeal if you’re denied benefits after an unfair hearing.
- Don’t expect a decision that day. The judge will typically review the evidence and issue a decision in about 30 days. However, he or she will sometimes issue a preliminarily oral decision at the hearing. This may occur if the parties agree you’re entitled to benefits, it’s clear you have a severe disability, or one of the parties comes unprepared.
While you don’t need an attorney for your SSDI hearing, it’s estimated that SSDI applicants with an attorney are twice as likely to be approved for disability benefits as those without representation.
Preparing for your SSDI Hearing
Administrative hearings aren’t as formal as traditional courtroom proceedings, but you should still take them seriously. An experienced SSDI attorney can help you prepare the following documentation, which you should bring to your hearing:
- The “Medical and Job Worksheet” you filled out while applying for SSDI benefits.
- Your SSDI application and any supporting documents, including any appeals letters and correspondence from the SSA.
- Certified copies of your medical records from the time of disability until your hearing. These records should include narrative reports from your treating physicians, treatment history, diagnosis codes, and opinions about your ability to work and engage in “activities of daily living” such as walking, shopping, and showering. Include any physical, occupational, and massage therapy records.
- Accident reports and non-medical records related to your disability and ability to work. This may include your employment file, records from an occupational counselor, and police reports. Anything that supports your inability to engage in meaningful employment despite attempts to do so can help during your hearing.
- Non-expert witness affidavits. These are typically signed, sworn, and notarized statements from friends, family, and former employers attesting to the nature of your disability and its impact on your work life and activities of daily living. For example, your personal trainer may testify that you haven’t been to the gym during your period of disability, and your daughter may testify you haven’t been able to drive for years.
- Expert witness statements and reports. These are often the most important part of your evidence. They consist of sworn statements from expert medical and occupational witnesses often attached to occupational and prognosis studies. These reports can neutralize the testimony of SSA witnesses who claim you’re not totally disabled.
Connecting with expert witnesses and preparing the proper affidavits for friends and family is difficult for everyone, especially someone with a serious disability. A qualified disability attorney is often necessary to prepare the evidence for your case.
The Importance of Hiring a Disability Attorney Early in the SSDI Process
One of the most important reasons to hire an SSDI attorney for your disability hearing is what happens if your benefits are denied. Your legal rights to appeal and/or file litigation after an administrative denial of benefits are limited. Unlike traditional litigation, your federal SSDI case will be limited to the “administrative record,” that is, the evidence you submitted during your administrative hearing. You typically won’t be permitted to submit new evidence during litigation, which means the evidence you prepare for your SSDI hearing has lasting implications for your case. Further, your assigned judge will give great deference to the decision of the administrator unless the evidence clearly shows it was incorrect. While you may not see it now, hiring an SSDI attorney for your disability hearing may have a lasting impact on your social security disability insurance claim.