When you and the hearing office are preparing for your Social Security disability hearing (the appeal hearing in front of a judge), the exhibit list and exhibit file become an important component of the evaluation process. The exhibit list is a listing of everything contained in a disability claimant's Social Security file (which becomes known as the "exhibit file" at the hearing, or simply the hearing file). Each item in your file is called an "exhibit" and assigned a number. The exhibit list can be thought of as a road map, or, better yet, a table of contents, of your Social Security case file.
The information contained in your Social Security disability file includes copies of all disability applications, forms, and appeals that have been filed, as well as copies of all medical records gathered by disability examiners at Disability Determination Services (DDS). It should also contain your Social Security earnings record, any letters sent by you, your family, or your employer, or medical source statements (letters from your doctor), and all notices of prior decisions by Social Security, including the rationale for why you were denied benefits.
If you've already attended an ALJ hearing and you're appealing to the Appeals Council, your file should also contain a transcript of the hearing and the ALJ's Notice of Decision. If you are appealing to U.S. District Court, your file will also contain the notice you received when the appeals council reviewed your file, Action of Appeals Council on Request for Review, and the Summons and Complaint you filed at District Court.
Exhibit lists are created for the sake of convenience and expediency. They allow both a disability claimant's lawyer or nonlawyer representative and the administrative law judge (ALJ) to be able to quickly tell what is in the file and to refer to a piece of medical evidence by its assigned number on the list. Entries on exhibit lists are like chapter entries in a table of contents. You can see a sample exhibit list on Social Security's website.
Exhibit lists are compiled by the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR, formerly known as the Office of Hearings and Appeals, or OHA). After ODAR creates your exhibit list, a copy is sent to you and your representative, if you have one. The completion of an exhibit list usually signals that a case is close to being scheduled for a hearing before a judge.
Unfortunately, the time required to create the exhibit lists accounts for significant delay in scheduling hearings. Staff workers at hearing offices must thumb through each claimant's Social Security file, which can be dozens or even hundreds of pages long, and tag each individual item as an exhibit so that it can be notated on the file's exhibit list. In all likelihood, the creation of exhibit lists adds many weeks or even months to the total time it takes to get a disability hearing before an administrative law judge.
Learn more about how long it takes to get an ALJ hearing scheduled.
When you receive the exhibit list, you should review it to see exactly what medical evidence was available to Disability Determination Services (DDS) when your disability claim was previously denied. If you find that records are missing, you should request the missing medical records from your doctors, hospitals, or clinics. But be sure to avoid duplicating the medical records that are already present in the file, as indicated by the exhibit list.
Often, when you hire a disability lawyer after your initial claim or reconsideration appeal is denied, the lawyer won't even order your medical records until he or she receives the actual exhibit file.
You should also review the file to try to find any mistakes or misstatements made by DDS or Social Security. For more information, see our article on reviewing your disability file before your hearing.
If you receive an unfavorable decision (a Notice of Decision after the hearing that denies you disability benefits) from Social Security, the exhibit list should be attached (if it's not, you can make a case that your file should be sent back for another hearing). If it's not attached, call ODAR and request it.
Once you get the exhibit list, make sure all of your medical reports and test are included. If the exhibit list is missing a medical report, you can appeal to the Appeals Council and argue (in a written brief) that the ALJ made an error by not considering the medical report.
Learn more about appealing to the Appeals Council.