The Social Security Disability Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)

Social Security judges decide disability appeals after reading the exhibit file and questioning the applicant and experts.

Administrative law judges (or ALJs, for short) are appointed by, and work for, the federal government, delivering rulings in many areas of statutory law. Administrative law judges who work for the Social Security Administration (SSA) render decisions on Social Security disability claims at the hearings level. These ALJs work at ODAR locations (Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, formerly the Office of Hearings and Appeals). Most states have several ODAR offices with a number of judges assigned to each.

What exactly does an ALJ do in the course of evaluating a disability claim for benefits and backpay? Before the appeal hearing, the ALJ will normally read an applicant's cumulative Social Security file, which, at the time of a hearing, is referred to as an exhibit file. The exhibit file contains your medical records, work history, and why you were originally denied for benefits. 

At the hearing, the ALJ questions the disability applicant and usually a medical or vocational expert. Experts appear at Social Security disability hearings at the request of an ALJ and are are well compensated for their services. 

Medical experts (MEs) are M.D.'s who provide informed testimony regarding the interpretation of a claimant's medical records.

Vocational experts (VEs) provide input regarding the range of available jobs for various occupations and whether a worker with certain impairments can do a particular job. Read about the details of how an ALJ questions the VE, and why the VE's answers are critical. Much of the time, the VE provides ammunition for judges to assert that "suitable other work" exists for applicants who are unable to return to their past work. (To learn more about how judges decide whether an applicant can do their past work or other work, see our section on how Social Security decides if you can work.)

In addition to questioning experts, ALJs also allow applicants, typically through their lawyers, the opportunity to present new medical evidence, which can strengthen a disability claim and/or refute the findings reached previously by DDS disability examiners.

How fair are administrative law judges when it comes to making decisions on disability claims? Most Social Security disability lawyers and representatives, regardless of where they practice, will generally agree with this assessment: There are good administrative law judges and there are those that are not as good. Some ALJs are more open minded and objective on disability claims, while others are simply more inclined to deny cases, even cases in which the medical evidence is particularly strong. Obviously, a disability applicant's success at the hearing level may depend, to some extent, on whichever judge has been assigned their case.

Most administrative law judges generally approve a far greater percentage of claims in which applicants have a lawyer, because, for many reasons, a lawyer can make a stronger disability case. For this reason, it makes sense to consider hiring a lawyer to represent you in a disability hearing.

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