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The Necessity of Experienced Legal Representation at an ALJ Hearing

Dec. 7, 2021

You’ve applied for benefits under the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program of the Social Security Administration (SSA) and were initially turned down, which happens more than half the time for all applicants. Your next step is to file for a reconsideration of the initial decision. Again, you are not approved. What’s next?Man is holding Social Security Disability Insurance SSDI policy.

The next step is to request a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) who will review your documentation and question you about your disability and whether you can work at your previous job or any other job.

The ALJ’s decision is not final, but a hearing with an ALJ usually gives you better than a 50 percent chance of having your benefits approved. You want to be fully prepared and represented by a Social Security disability attorney experienced in these hearings.

If you’re in or around Tallahassee, Florida, or nearby in Gainesville or Jacksonville, contact Larry K White, LLC. Our attorneys are experienced with and fully knowledgeable about ALJ disability hearings and will help you prepare any documentary evidence needed such as medical records, witness statements, and physician and vocational professionals’ expert opinions. We can also prepare you personally for your part in the proceedings as you will definitely be asked questions by the ALJ.

Preparing for an ALJ Hearing

To obtain a hearing with an ALJ, you must go to an Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), which is not the same as a Social Security office. You can schedule an appointment after your request for reconsideration has failed to result in success.

Though the administrative law judge is a legal professional and a judge in name and function, when you go to a disability hearing with an ALJ, you are not on trial. An SSA lawyer will not be there to grill you or challenge your statements. It is more of an informal proceeding held outside a courtroom, usually in a conference room somewhere or even by video conferencing.

The ALJ will, however, in many instances have on hand, or by prior testimony or videoconferencing, a vocational expert (VE) and/or a medical expert (ME). They are independent of the SSA system and supposedly impartial. They will provide testimony on your medical condition and your ability to work. Your attorney can question and challenge their opinions.

You and your attorney can also arrange to have your own witnesses present to bolster your case. The focus, of course, will be on you, so unless you are completely unable to be present at the hearing, you must be there to answer questions and describe your condition as you are experiencing it.

No two ALJs are alike. Some may prefer a more formal hearing where they lead the questioning. Others may let your attorney begin the process and then follow up with questions of their own. The bottom line is that you never know which type of ALJ you’ll get. Some can be tougher than others in their approach to your case, so you need to be prepared for any eventuality.

The Importance of Legal Representation

Notice that so far, we have assumed you have an experienced disability attorney with you at the hearing.

A hearing with an ALJ is not something you want to attempt on your own. Very few people are prepared to answer questions from a judge about their medical condition and their inability to work. It can be emotionally draining, and in your exuberance to “win” your case, you may ramble and make claims that you cannot back up.

Therefore, you should not only have an attorney present, but you should also work with one prior to the hearing to make sure you’re prepared to answer questions in a calm and precise way. An experienced Social Security disability attorney, such as those at our firm, Larry K White, LLC, will give you a better chance of success by:

  • Assembling the necessary documents and exhibits

  • Reviewing weak areas of your initial claim and bolstering them with relevant professional statements and evidence

  • Helping you arrange for witness testimony, either in person or in writing, to bolster your claim

  • Preparing and coaching you for the ALJ’s questioning

  • Standing by you during the hearing and questioning/challenging ME or VE testimony

After the Hearing

The ALJ will not usually make a decision during the hearing. You should receive a Notice of Award (NOA) in the mail in a few weeks’ time afterward. The name can be misleading, however, as the NOA will either approve or deny your claim.

If your claim is approved, the NOA will explain whether it is partially favorable or fully favorable. Fully favorable means your claim is good from the initial date of your application. In this case, you would receive back pay from that date.

If your claim is partially favorable, it means the judge has found that you are disabled but from a different date than that on your original application. This will limit the amount of your back pay.

If the decision is unfavorable, you can request that the Social Security Appeals Council review your case, which can reverse the decision, remand the case back to the same ALJ, or decline entirely to review the case.

Social Security Disability Attorneys in Tallahassee, Florida

At Larry K White, LLC, our attorneys have worked with clients throughout the Tallahassee area to pursue their disability claims through administrative law judge hearings. These hearings present a prime opportunity to obtain a favorable response to your claim, so you should seek legal counsel and prepare thoroughly. Solid preparation can often spell the difference between approval and denial.

If your claim for SSDI has been denied initially and then during reconsideration, you definitely should seek an ALJ hearing. Contact us immediately if you find yourself in that situation. We can work with you to prepare the best package of documentation – and coach you to handle the ALJ’s questioning – to give you a much-improved chance of success