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The Social Security Disability (SSDI) Hearing Room

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Many people who have pending Social Security Disability hearings have a few questions about the hearing and the actual hearing room. What does the hearing room look like? What do you need to expect? Who's going to be there? How do you dress? I can answer these questions for you.

Social Security hearings are different than regular judicial hearings. If you've ever been to a state or superior court, you know when you walk in there will be a bailiff, an armed guard (who is typically protecting the judge and the witnesses), and witness tables. Most importantly, in a regular courtroom - like a superior court or a state court - people are free to come and go as they please and observe the procedures (except in some circumstances). These types of courtrooms are basically open to the public. Well, this is not the case with Social Security Disability hearings.

Social Security hearings are a lot different than what is described above. Social Security hearings are not open to the public. These are administrative hearings as opposed to judicial hearings. Basically, an administrative hearing essentially means that you have a judge who is both the finder of fact as well as the arbiter of law. So, it's a little bit different than a regular courtroom, and you don't have the right as a member of the general public to go sit and watch. I guess it's good for privacy purposes, but one of the issues, of course, is if you do have a disability hearing coming up, you can't go watch and see what's going to happen.

The actual hearing is in a courtroom. But it's a small room, a lot smaller than what you probably expect. It really looks more like a conference room. When you get there, you'll see that the judge will be sitting on a bench. Typically, it's not real high, and it's not very far away. There will usually be a conference table in front of the bench, and you and your attorney will typically be seated at the conference table. You may be sitting facing the judge. Your attorney may be to your right and there will be another witness at the hearing. Typically, a vocational witness will be to your left. So imagine you're sitting at a conference table, there's a Judge in front of you, and there are people on either side of you.

The judge will also usually have a hearing assistant whose job it is to record the proceedings; they record these onto a CD. They do that for purposes of appeals; if there is an appeal, they do have a verbal record of what happens as well as the written record from the exhibit file.

More recently, what we're seeing is there are computer screens at the hearing as well because now the exhibit files are being stored on CD. They're replacing the physical files of the past, and these exhibit files hold documents like your initial applications and your medical evidence, etc. They're done on CD, and the contents of the CD can be shown on the computer screen.

Your attorney will typically have a CD and a computer screen so that he or she can go through the exhibit file as the hearing progresses.

I mentioned earlier that a witness may be present. Vocational witnesses are fairly common in disability hearings. Basically, the vocational witness's job is to identify your past work, and to explain to the judge what work you might be able to do given any physical or mental limitations the judge proposes. So, vocational witnesses are not there to help you or hurt you. Basically, they're just there to assist the judge in deciding what type of work you might be able to do given your limitations. In essence, the hearing room itself is a pretty informal situation.

People also ask questions about how they should dress during the hearing. I guess my take on that is I would not come in wearing a t-shirt, shorts, or blue jeans. I think the best thing to do is come in wearing a nice pair of khaki pants and a button down shirt. Or if you are female, just a business casual type of outfit will probably suffice. I don't think it's wise to be too dressed up, because then that looks like you're ready to go to work. But, I also don't think you should come in too casual either. I've seen people show up in ripped t-shirts and blue jeans. In my view, that's showing a certain level of disrespect for the court. I think it's important to show the court that you do have proper respect, so I would not come in a t-shirt and jeans. But, otherwise, just make yourself comfortable.

They do typically have a pitcher of water so you can have some water while there. There will also be Kleenex, facial tissues, etc; sometimes people get emotional when they start thinking about the things they can't do and they start to cry.

The hearings themselves last about 45 minutes. Often, there's a clock in the room, and I mention the clock because I think it's important that if you testify that you can only sit for 15 minutes, then you need to keep an eye on the clock so that after 15 minutes has passed, you stand up and stretch out. You don't need to ask permission to do so. It's okay to do that. But, the important thing is, if you testify you can only sit for 15 or 20 minutes and you sit there for 45 minutes or an hour, it's going to negatively affect your credibility.

So, in conclusion, this is a fairly informal process. This is not like court where you have to, for example, introduce evidence. We don't need custodians of medical records and we don't need to establish chain of custody. It's nothing like that. They'll accept photocopies of records. They'll accept things submitted actually at the hearing date, although they don't like that. We don't need originals, we don't need witnesses to verify the legitimacy of the documents, etc. So it's very informal compared to what you may be expecting.

It is also not adversarial like many court hearings; there's nobody on the other side trying to argue against you. Social Security does not have a lawyer there. The judge is asking the questions. So, this is really your chance to talk to the judge and to paint a picture. You want to explain to the judge what your life is like, how it affects you, and how it affects your possibility of going back to work.
I hope that this is helpful in your preparations for your disability hearing.

Jonathan Ginsberg has been practicing Social Security Disability law in the Atlanta, Georgia area for over 20 years. His website can be found at http://www.atlantasocialsecuritydisabilityattorney.net

 

Jonathan Ginsberg has been practicing Social Security Disability law in the Atlanta, Georgia area for over 20 years. His website can be found at http://www.atlantasocialsecuritydisabilityattorney.net

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