Fist, it is important to remember the hearing is supposed to be informal. In other words, most of the Administrative Law Judges do not follow strict trial rules and procedures. Does this mean you can talk out of turn and interrupt others at the hearing? No; you still must wait your turn and be respectful. Most judges give everyone an opportunity to talk, so I believe it is important to be patient until you are given the chance to speak. In my experience, judges aren't really interested in your financial distress or in the fact that your neighbor down the street receives Social Security disability benefits even though he has nothing wrong with him. The judge is focused on a single issue: how your disabling condition prevents you from working.
I have appeared at hearings in front of Administrative Law Judges from all over Indiana and the United States. When I prepare my clients for their hearings, I explain the three categories of questions asked by most of those judges:
- General questions. These are usually the "easy" ones that you won't have to work too hard to answer. However, it is very important that you answer them truthfully, even if the answer is a little embarrassing. These questions include your name, age, height, weight, marital status, number of children, who lives with you, drug or alcohol use, and whether you have been arrested or incarcerated. The judge may ask other questions in this area depending on the facts in each individual case.
- Job history questions. These questions are necessary because the Social Security Administration has to decide if you are able to perform your previous work with the disabilities you currently experience. In making this decision, the SSA may only consider jobs that (1) you performed during the last 15 years and (2) lasted over three months.
- Questions concerning your physical and mental impairments. This is usually by far the most extensive line of questioning. These questions can include the names and specialties of the doctors you see; your diagnoses; any surgeries or procedures you've had; any pain you might experience; your limitations on sitting, standing, walking and lifting; how your disabling conditions contribute to your inability to work; and how your disabling conditions prevent you from performing activities of daily living such as cleaning, shopping, bathing, dressing, and other activities.
Does this list cover everything you can expect at your hearing? Probably not, because all hearings are unique depending on the circumstances. However, I have appeared at hundreds of hearings, and in my experience most hearings follow this outline. When I prepare my clients for a hearing, I'm not just helping them get ready; I'm making sure I am ready and have all the information I need to present a good case. I do not want surprises at the hearing; I want to know what my client is going to say and why they are saying it. In my opinion there can be good and bad ways to answer questions at your hearing, and a well thought-out explanation to the judge may help him better understand your disability claim.