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.

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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) make decisions on Social Security disability claims at the hearings level. These ALJs work at OHO locations (Office of Hearings Operations formerly the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review). Most states have several OHO offices with a number of judges assigned to each.

How does an ALJ evaluate disability claims 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 well compensated for their services.

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?

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, you may want to consider hiring a lawyer to represent you in a disability hearing.

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