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Generally, when you appeal to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) you will receive a hearing in front of an ALJ about your situation. These proceedings are like going to court, except that the proceedings are generally informal. The idea is to impartially gather information to determine whether your impairment meets or beats the Social Security listing. A hearing in front of an ALJ is not an adversarial proceeding where you are pitted against Social Security. 

If the denial that brings you to an ALJ was based on a lack of information, and you obtain concrete written documentation of that missing information, you have a right to request that the Administrative Law Judge make a "decision on the record."  In this situation, the judge takes the new documentation and reviews it and makes a decision without having a new hearing. While this method can speed up the process, it should not be used unless you know exactly what it will take to get a favorable decision and are able to provide it.

It is definitely preferable to hire an attorney to assist you in front of an ALJ. Most people who appear before an Administrative Law Judge with an attorney win their case. See Hiring A Representative With An Appeal.

ALJ hearings are much more informal than a regular court proceeding. If you choose to represent yourself, you can do fine if you have adequate preparation, can articulate your situation, and don't lose your cool.

For information about hearings in front of an ALJ, see:.

Form To Request An ALJ Hearing

Form HA-501 is used to request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. It is available at: offsite link

There are some things to keep in mind as you complete the form:

  1. Prepare before sending it in. Think about how you intend to present your arguments to the ALJ before you complete the Request form.
  2. If you plan to use an attorney, find the attorney and let him/her assist you with the form. The attorney will be able to help you clarify the issues. Also, more paperwork is required if you send in this form without an attorney and engage one later.
  3. Question #5 "I REQUEST A HEARING BEFORE AN ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE. I disagree with the determination made on my claim because…:" Here you can write (or on a separate sheet of paper if needed) why you believe your claim should be approved. Include all the arguments you can think of that help prove your case. Look at the guidance noted in Request For Reconsideration.
  4. Question #6 asks about what new evidence you intend to provide. The more new evidence you can present, the more likely you are to win your appeal. New evidence may be in the form of medical records, third party testimony, or written statements by doctors, therapists and other health care providers. (See Statements By Doctors, and Affidavits and Statements From Friends and Co-Workers).
  5. Question #7 asks if you intend to attend the hearing. You should say "Yes". It is important that you attend the hearing and participate as much as possible -- with your attorney's advice, if you use one.

If you are requesting a hearing on the denial of a claim for disability benefits, you must complete and sign additional forms. These forms are the SSA-3441, Disability Report - Appeal offsite link, (available at offsite link) and SSA-827, Authorization to Disclose Information to SSA offsite link, offsite link). You should also complete an HA-4631, Claimant's Recent Medical Treatment offsite link, ( offsite link) and an HA-4632, Claimant's Medications offsite link, ( offsite link). If you have worked since you filed your application for disability benefits, complete an HA-4633, Claimant's Work Background offsite link, ( offsite link). You may also need to complete a form SSA-1696, Appointment of Representative offsite link, ( offsite link) if you are appointing a representative. Your representative should also sign the SSA-1696 before you send it to Social Security.

Depending on the state, getting a hearing date takes between 3 and 12 months.

Confirmation Letter

You will receive a letter from the Office of Hearings and Appeals giving you:

  • The date and time of your hearing.
  • The address and phone number of the office where the hearing will be held.

By law, this letter must reach you at least 20 days before the date set for the hearing.

If you intend to represent yourself, immediately call the noted telephone number and ask for a copy of your file. The file will show you what information was used to deny your claim and should help you determine what you need to provide to win approval.

The ALJ Hearing: In General

Hearings in front of an ALJ are conducted in a manner similar to a court trial with some major differences. Some hearings may be scheduled via video-conferencing if the judge assigned to the hearing is at a distant site.

  • The hearings are fairly informal. The only people likely to be there are the judge, a secretary operating a recorder for transcribing the proceedings, you (the claimant), your attorney, if you have one, and anyone else you have brought to testify. In some cases, the Administrative Law Judge has a medical doctor or vocational expert present to testify at the hearing. These people are supposed to give their objective opinion, but more than likely they will side with Social Security's denial.
  • There are likely to be witnesses. You will have a chance to examine them.
  • The ALJ will also likely examine you.
  • You are given the opportunity to present evidence of changes in your medical condition since the date of your application.
  • There are no jurors or spectators at the hearing.
  • There is no attorney at the hearing representing Social Security trying to get the judge to deny the disability claim.
  • Some judges wear robes. Others don't.
  • There may be a medical expert -- who generally only examines the records, and not you. There also may be a vocational expert to testify about what work you can do, including what you can be trained to do.

The ALJ Hearing: Preparation

It's best to be prepared for the kind of tough, skeptical questioning that a judge might ask. For example:

  • The judge will often ask about education, work history, work activity, daily activities, medications taken, doctors visited, treatment received, symptoms of impairments, and whether a claimant thinks she or he can do any work.
  • There may be a vocational expert at the hearing. "Just in case," think about the various jobs you may arguably be able to do, and be ready to explain why you could not do the work. For instance, if you are visually impaired but not legally blind, you will have to show the presence of other disabling conditions. Explain how you are prevented from working when the two are coupled together.
  • In case Social Security calls a doctor, become thoroughly familiar with all the medical records that Social Security has reviewed. Be ready to point out the portions of the records that support your claim of disability.
  • Many judges limit the time for a hearing. In case this happens to you, prioritize your evidence by giving each piece of evidence a number. It's easiest if number one is the most important evidence.

Practice saying your answers in front of a mirror so you can convey what you want the judge to know.

Be aware that the judge is likely to look at your physical demeanor when you enter and leave the room. He or she will also be trying to assess whether you are telling the truth when you make your statements.

The ALJ Hearing: Show Up For It

ALJ is the first level at which you can be present at a hearing. You should be at the hearing so the judge can see that you are being truthful.

Don't worry about what to wear or how to act. Just be yourself. Don't try to hide your symptoms or how you feel, even if your norm is to do that when you're with your friends or family.

The hearing will be at the Office of Hearings and Appeals.

  • Let the receptionist know you are there.
  • Assume your hearing will start on time.

The ALJ Hearing: The Hearing

Proceedings in front of an ALJ are like going to court in the sense that there are rules and there are likely to be witnesses, and the chance to examine them. However, a proceeding in front of an ALJ is conducted much more informally than a trial.

The Administrative Law Judge will allow you or your representative to present arguments and examine witnesses. The ALJ will also likely examine you. You are given the opportunity to present evidence of changes in your medical condition since the date of your application.

  • The idea is to gather information to determine whether your impairment meets or beats the Social Security listing. It not an adversarial proceeding where you are pitted against Social Security. 
  • There is no representative from Social Security at the hearing.
  • The Administrative Law Judge is responsible for looking into all the issues.
  • The judge receives documentary evidence as well as the testimony of witnesses.
At the hearing:

  • When you are called into the hearing room, the judge might already be there. Some judges wear robes, others don't.
  • Typically, the judge sits at the head of a long table with a court reporter to his right. You usually will sit facing the judge with the person transcribing the proceedings and any other people seated near by.  
  • There are usually microphones in front of all of the key participants. 
  • You, as the claimant, and any witnesses testify under oath or affirmation, and the testimony is recorded word-for-word.
  • You may ask to be allowed to make an opening statement or argument. This can be a good way to focus the Administrative Law Judge's attention, but keep it brief -- only one or two minutes.
  • You have the right to submit records and call witnesses if you choose.
  • If you testify:
  • If you sweat a lot, or have a nervous tic, let the judge know upfront that this is a normal condition for you and that it does not relate to this particular hearing or to your testimony.
  • If you have problems understanding the questions, don't hesitate to explain that to the judge.
  • The etiquette differs from judge to judge, but you're on safe ground if you conduct yourself as you would in a regular courtroom. Address the judge as "Your Honor" and stand, or offer to, if you are able, when speaking unless told otherwise.  Most Administrative Law Judges have their clerk to tell you to stay seated when they rise, but some judges like to be accorded all of the formalities of a regular court room. 
  • The Judge typically starts out by asking you or your lawyer if you object to any of the agency exhibits (which is the information in the file) and the bases for your objections.
  • Frequently, a physician and/or a vocational specialist will appear to present their opinion, usually upholding Social Security's position based on your medical record and exhibits. They are both contracted by the Social Security Administration to offer testimony, the physician on your medical record, the vocational expert on your ability to work.  If possible, see if you can find out in advance of the hearing whether one or both will attend. If so, plan to cross-examine them.
  • If there are vocational experts or doctors present, it tends to make the hearing a little more formal and a little more like that of a traditional courtroom. However, in general, the Administrative Law Judge hearing is more like an informal  fact finding conference. The critical issues are the witnesses' credibility, and, if the question is about disability, how the medical conditions impact the particular individual.
  • If additional evidence is necessary, the judge may arrange for examinations to be performed and may obtain additional medical evidence from sources who have treated you.
  • The styles of judging can differ greatly. Some judges question you (the claimant) themselves, and only allow the attorney to question you after they have finished.  Some let the attorney question you and interrupt from time to time to ask relevant questions. 
  • The judges have typically reviewed the files or been briefed by the clerks and probably have a tentative ruling in mind before the hearing starts based on the exhibits in the file. 

The ALJ's Decision

Some judges issue a tentative oral ruling at the conclusion of the hearing; but more often, they say nothing at the end except "thank you."

Unfortunately, Social Security doesn't impose a time limit on administrative law judges rendering their opinions. Allow four to six weeks to pass after the hearing, then follow-up with the hearing office on progress of the written opinion. Judicial decisions can come anywhere from a week after the hearing to 9 months later.

The ALJ's "Notice of Decision"will be mailed to you and your representative, if any. If the judge's decision is against you, the notice will explain your right to appeal if you are dissatisfied with the administrative law judge's decision.

If You Lose In Front Of An ALJ, you can appeal to the Appeals Council. See Appealing From An ALJ Decision, and Appeals Council.