What happens at a Social Security Disability hearing?



Are you wondering what you can expect at your disability hearing?

We have discussed the levels which your claim may go through here.  This discussion will only cover what happens at the hearing.   

The hearing is the first time you will have the opportunity to tell your story to an employee of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”).  The person to who you will be telling your story is an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).  The ALJ hearing your case is not bound by any of the findings made at any of the prior levels.  In other words, the ALJ will look at your case with a fresh pair of eyes and he or she will have the chance to actually meet you in person or on video.  While it is normal for you to be nervous, you should take comfort in the fact that all ALJs want and are required to make the right decision. 

Social Security hearings are Administrative in nature and they are not governed by the rules of evidence or procedure.  Because they are not governed by these strict rules, they are more informal and ALJs have some freedom in how they run their hearings.  Also, each ALJ runs his or her hearings a little different.  Thus, this article is based on generalities, which may or may not be completely accurate in your particular case.

What does the Disability Hearing Room look like?

Hearing rooms for Social Security hearings are much different than traditional courtrooms.  Your hearing is almost always held around a conference table. Sometimes, but not always, the ALJ is seated a few feet higher than the rest of the participants as shown in the picture above. 

You will also notice an audio tape recorder and microphones used to make an audio recording of the hearing. It is important that you speak directly into the microphone as the microphones do not amplify your voice.  The audio recording is used to appeal a decision that you do not agree with.  In order to have a good audio recording you should answer questions with “yes” or “no”. 

Uh-uhs, MmmHmms and head nods do not come through in the audio recording and could require you to go through the entire process again in order to get a good recording.

Who will be there?

Unlike traditional hearings, Social Security hearings are not open to the public so there are no seats for spectators or juries.  The participants at a hearing will be the ALJ, a hearing monitor (who operates the equipment and assists the ALJ throughout the day), you, your lawyer (if you have one) and sometimes an ALJ will ask one or more expert witnesses to be present.  The first expert who may testify is a medical expert (“ME”).  The second expert who may testify is a vocational expert (“VE”).

Preliminary hearing matters

Usually when you enter the hearing room, your attorney will be able to direct you to a specific chair, it is often next to your attorney and across from the ALJ.  The ALJ will then introduce themself along with the hearing assistant and any expert witnesses who happen to be there.  The ALJ will then ask your attorney to state their name. The Judge will then read a very brief statement setting out the issues to be heard.  In most cases, they will ask your lawyer to waive a formal reading of the issue.

The Judge will then see if there are any objections to exhibits in the record and whether or not there are any outstanding records.

One of your attorney’s most important tasks is obtaining up-to-date copies of your medical records.  It is you and your law firm’s responsibility to keep the record up to date, thus you should contact your lawyer’s office regularly to advise them of any new treatments or new doctors.  Medical records are crucial to your case and more times than not will be the deciding factor as to whether or not you win or lose your case.

Assuming there are no objections, the Judge will swear you in.

Your Testimony

Every Judge has a different technique with regard to questions and testimony. Some judges ask so many questions you will wonder why your attorney is even in the room.  Other judges may not ask a single question, leaving all of the questioning to your attorney.  Usually, the ALJ and your attorney will take turns asking questions of you until both are satisfied that you have told your entire story. The subjects covered in your direct examination sometimes include:

    • background information – your age, education, marital status, living arrangements
    • discussion of the type of work you have done over the last 15 years
    • specific discussion of medical problems and what limitations those problems impose upon you

Steve Fleschner talks about some of the things you should keep in mind when testifying here.


After listening to your testimony, the ALJ will then ask questions of the expert witnesses. Your attorney will also be given an opportunity to ask questions of the expert witnesses.

In most cases, the Judge will not issue a decision at the end of the hearing. You can expect to receive a written decision in six to eight weeks.  The Social Security Administration will send a copy of the decision to both you and your attorney.


You don’t have to attend your hearing alone.  We are here for you!

Our Social Security Disability lawyers and expert staff are here to help you navigate the hearing phase of your claim successfully.  Just call Fleschner, Stark, Tanoos & Newlin at 1-800-618-4878 for a Free Consultation.  We have handled tens of thousands of Social Security Disability hearings and would be happy to further explain any questions you may have about your hearing.


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