A Social Security disability hearing is held at an Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). There are four main ODARs in North Carolina: Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Fayetteville. There are some satellite offices as well.
Social Security regulations provide that a hearing should be held within 75 miles of the residence of a claimant. So a hearing may be held at one of the satellite offices to abide by this regulation. If held outside of the 75 mile range, the SSA should reimburse travel expenses to the claimant.
Live vs. Video hearings
Live hearings are when the claimant appears at a hearing with the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) being present in person. A video hearing is when the claimant appears at a satellite location and the ALJ is seen over a video screen. The judge can hear and see the claimant and the representative and the claimant can hear and see the judge. A claimant can object to a hearing by video and request a live hearing. However, this could delay the time for getting a hearing because of scheduling issues for the judge.
A case is assigned to a particular hearing office based upon the residence of the claimant. Sometimes, due to an overload of cases and length of time to get a hearing, a case will be sent to another ODAR (sometimes out of state) for adjudication. These are always video hearings and the claimant can object to them.
Players in a hearing
A claimant will attend a hearing along or with their representative. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) oversees the hearing. A clerk is present to make sure the hearing is recorded. Expert witnesses may be present or appear by telephone to testify.
The ALJ is responsible for hearing the evidence, including the testimony of the claimant, and making a decision in a case. If the ALJ needs additional information about a claimant’s medical condition(s), the ALJ can have a Medical Expert (ME) present at the hearing to give testimony. The ALJ will take the evidence and construct the residual functional capacity (RFC) of the claimant. The RFC is the most a claimant can perform. Once the ALJ has formulated the RFC, the ALJ may ask the vocational expert (VE) questions about jobs based upon the RFC.
A vocational expert (VE) is supposed to be a non-biased person with vocational education, experience, and/or training who has been determined by the Social Security Administration to be qualified to testify in hearings.
The ALJ will open the hearing by “going on the record” (this means the recording starts). The ALJ will state this is a hearing for ___ (enter the claimant’s name) for a Title II and/or Title XVI application filed on ____ (fill in filing date). A Title II application refers to an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). A Title XVI application refers to an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. The Date Last Insured is ___ (fill in the date). ____ (claimant’s name) is present, either pro se (meaning by themselves) or is represented by ___ (fill in attorney/representative’s name). The ALJ will state that ___ (fill in name) is a vocational expert or medical expert and is present in person or by telephone. If both a VE and ME are present, then the ALJ will introduce both.
The ALJ will ask the claimant or the claimant’s attorney/representative if they have reviewed the file and if they have any objections to any of the exhibits. The ALJ may then read the issues or ask the claimant’s attorney/representative if they want to waive a reading of the issues.
The ALJ may allow the claimant or the claimant’s attorney/representative to make an opening statement at this point. This is an opportunity to raise any issues, such as reopening prior applications or just give a summary of what the evidence will show.
The ALJ will then swear in the witnesses. Then the ALJ will either ask the claimant questions or turn it over to the attorney/representative to ask questions of the claimant. The claimant should testify about conditions and the limitations as a result of the medical conditions.
Once the claimant is finished testifying, the ALJ will either end the hearing or ask questions of any experts present. Prior to asking the experts any questions, the ALJ will ask the claimant or the claimant’s attorney/representative if they have any objections to the person being qualified as an expert. The claimant or the claimant’s attorney has a chance to question the person to see if they qualify or if they have any objection.
If a medical expert is present and the ALJ needs additional information about the claimant’s medical condition(s), then the ME can testify based upon the questions asked by the ALJ. The ALJ can ask the vocational expert (VE) questions about the claimant’s past work. The VE would testify about the past work based upon the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). The VE classifies the jobs based upon the DOT.
The ALJ can then ask the VE about other jobs based upon the residual functional capacity (RFC) formulated by the ALJ. If the VE testifies that there are no other jobs based upon the RFC, then the claimant may have won their claim. If the VE testifies there are jobs, the VE will usually give three jobs based upon the RFC.
At this point, the claimant or the claimant’s representative can cross-examine the VE. The claimant or claimant’s representative can use the evidence to change the RFC or question the VE about their basis for the jobs they listed.
The ALJ may give the claimant or the claimant’s attorney/representative a chance to give a closing argument. This is a chance to point out particular evidence to go against the ALJ’s RFC.
The ALJ is not likely to issue a decision at the hearing. The ALJ may tell the claimant they will take everything under advisement and send a decision in the mail.