If you've been denied on your application ("claim") for disability benefits at the initial and reconsideration levels, the next step is asking for a hearing in front of a Social Security disability administrative law judge (ALJ). You'll have the chance to speak with the ALJ in person and explain why you can't work.
Claims examiners working for your state's disability determination services office review your claim in the earlier stages of the application process, but at the hearing level your claim is handled by the federal Social Security Office of Hearing Operations (OHO). Each hearing office typically has between six to twelve ALJs who conduct disability hearings and write decisions.
The job of an administrative law judge who works for Social Security is to review your claim for disability benefits, conduct a hearing, and make a determination about whether you're disabled according to Social Security rules and regulations.
For most claimants, the most visible responsibility of an ALJ is when the judge holds their disability hearing, but an ALJ's workload for your claim can also include the following:
Each ALJ structures their work routine differently, but almost all judges will look at your exhibit file—which contains your medical records and procedural history—before your hearing to make a list of questions they want to ask you about your health and activities of daily living.
After the hearing, the ALJ will determine whether more information is needed to make a decision about your disability claim. If the judge doesn't think there's enough evidence yet in your exhibit file, the ALJ can "leave the record open" to request more information after the hearing.
Common reasons why ALJs will leave the record open and put off making a final decision are:
Judges like to get decisions out sooner rather than later, and not all of them will agree to leave the record open, so make sure you're prepared with all the information you need before the day of the hearing.
You won't get to see a Social Security disability judge until after you appeal a denial at the reconsideration level. If you were denied at reconsideration (often referred to as the "second denial"), you have 60 days to submit appeal Form HA-501, Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge.
Once you file your request for an ALJ hearing, you'll have to wait a while before your hearing is scheduled. Hearing offices receive thousands of requests to see an ALJ each year, and backlogs are unfortunately common. You can expect to wait on average twelve months before your hearing is scheduled, though this varies between offices.
You might be able to get your disability hearing scheduled faster if you agree to have your hearing conducted over the phone or by videoconference. ALJs often find it easier to get everybody present for the hearing together remotely, and can fit you into their schedule quicker.
You still have the right to an in-person hearing, however, as phone or video hearings do have some disadvantages. For more information, see our article on whether you should agree to an in-person or video hearing.
Social Security disability judges are aware that people who apply for disability benefits aren't at the highest point in their lives and strive to treat every hearing, and every claimant, with the importance and respect that they deserve. ALJs are required to follow rules of professional conduct and they take their role as impartial decision makers seriously.
Most ALJs have many years of experience working for Social Security (or a related federal agency, such as the VA) as attorney advisors—or in private practice as lawyers representing claimants—so they tend to know what it's like to be on the other side and they try to avoid being hostile or mean.
It's important to remember that whether your ALJ is nice or not isn't a good clue as to how the judge will decide your case. Some ALJs like to engage in small talk to make claimants feel comfortable and put them at ease during a stressful situation, but others value efficiency and don't want to waste claimants' time by making their hearing longer than it needs to be. Neither personality makes an ALJ more or less likely to approve your case.
The name of the ALJ who will conduct your hearing will be at the end of your notice of hearing. The hearing notice tells you when, where, and how your hearing will be held.
Social Security maintains data on ALJ decision making ("dispositions") here. You can search for the name of your ALJ and see how the judge has decided disability cases in the past year. Social Security only releases the "raw" numbers—how many favorable, partially favorable, and unfavorable decisions the ALJ makes—so you'll have to calculate the percentage of favorable decisions by dividing the number of "awards" by the total number of cases the ALJ heard.
Other non-government sites that calculate the percentage of favorable decisions for you sometimes have a comments section where people can leave "reviews" for the ALJs. Disability attorneys understand that these reviews are often left by frustrated claimants and don't reflect the ALJ's level of professionalism or even their "allowance rate" (percentage of decisions approved).
Attending a disability hearing can be an intimidating experience, even if everything goes smoothly. Consider consulting an experienced disability attorney to attend the hearing with you and help smooth out any hiccups in the process.
Your lawyer can help get your medical records in time for the hearing, answer any correspondence from Social Security, and advocate for you in front of the ALJ. For more information, see our article on the reasons having a disability attorney can increase your success at a hearing.
Updated October 12, 2022