An "on the record" (OTR) decision is a favorable ruling by a Social Security disability judge that's made without a hearing. OTR decisions are based on the written medical evidence that the judge reviews before a hearing—OTR is actually short for "on the (medical) records."
Everybody who appeals a disability denial to the hearing level can request an OTR review. But in order to have a successful OTR decision, you must have enough medical evidence to prove to the judge that you're disabled without the need for hearing testimony. (A similar strategy is to request an attorney advisor opinion.)
Advantages of an On the Record Decision
Disability attorneys and their clients are usually thrilled when a judge issues an OTR. Having an OTR decision doesn't really have any downsides. Here are some reasons why getting an OTR can be to your advantage.
- An OTR expedites the process. Waiting for a hearing to be scheduled can take many months or even years. The total amount of disability appeals submitted to a local Social Security office often exceeds the limited number of administrative law judges (ALJs) who are available to hold hearings. But OTRs can be reviewed by both ALJs and qualified staff attorneys, which decreases the time you need to wait before receiving benefits.
- An OTR means you can avoid a hearing. If an ALJ makes a decision on the record, you don't need to attend a hearing. Because hearings can be physically and mentally stressful, many disability applicants feel relieved when they can bypass the hearing and still receive a favorable outcome. OTRs also avoid the need for witnesses—such as vocational or medical experts—to testify at the hearing.
How to Get an OTR Review
After your application for disability benefits is denied at the reconsideration level, you have the right to request a hearing. You have 60 days from the date of your denial notice to file your hearing request, after which Social Security can review your application "on the record." You might get an OTR review in one of two ways:
- A hearing officer initiates an OTR review. One of the ALJ's staff might see something in your record, such as new supporting medical evidence, indicating that they don't need a hearing in order to find you disabled.
- You formally request an OTR review. If you (or your representative) think that your medical evidence is strong enough on its own to support a disability determination—for example, you have several doctors' opinions stating that you meet a listing—you can file a written request for an OTR. Your request should briefly state why you're disabled with specific reference to medical evidence.
OTR requests aren't granted very often, but you'll have more success with a disability attorney. If you want to try requesting an OTR review yourself, you can find more information in our article on how to write an OTR request.
Benefits of Being Represented
You always have the right to represent yourself during the disability determination process. But because Social Security rules can be complicated, having an experienced lawyer or non-attorney representative can be very helpful when requesting an on the record review. Consider some of the following benefits of hiring a legal professional to help you get an OTR decision.
- An attorney will have experience writing a brief. Your representative will know which arguments and evidence are best at convincing a judge to write an OTR decision, and can put them clearly and concisely in your OTR brief.
- A lawyer can gather the right medical evidence. Your representative can, with your permission, ask your doctors for help getting the evidence that Social Security wants to see. The agency often needs evidence of specific medical terminology or test results in your record before you can receive an OTR.
- A representative can submit a proposed decision to Social Security. Many disability attorneys are registered with Social Security's "Appointed Representative Services," which allows them to fill out a proposed decision template that the ALJ can use to write a favorable OTR decision (and saves time).
- A lawyer can answer any questions that arise. If the ALJ or staff attorney working on your case has any questions or needs more information, your lawyer will be able to speak clearly with them using specific Social Security terms.
- An attorney can negotiate a new disability onset date, if needed. Sometimes an ALJ agrees that you're currently disabled, but disagrees on the date that you became disabled. In these cases, the ALJ will seek permission from you and your representative to amend your disability onset date. Your onset date determines how much backpay you'll receive, and having a disability lawyer argue for an earlier onset can mean you're owed thousands more in past due benefits.
In short, if you think your medical records are strong enough to win you an approval in an OTR review, it makes sense to talk to an attorney or disability advocate.
What Happens After You Request a Record Review
One of three things may happen after you or your representative requests an on the record decision:
- A staff attorney may contact you. A staff attorney may call you to ask certain technical questions about your application, such as when you stopped working full-time. Make sure you answer their questions as thoroughly as possible so you can avoid a hearing.
- You're awarded benefits. The desired outcome of an OTR request is that Social Security grants you disability benefits based on your written medical records.
- Your OTR review is denied. If the ALJ has questions about your case that can't be resolved without hearing testimony, your request will be denied and a hearing will be scheduled. Having your OTR denied isn't necessarily a bad sign—you and your representative will have the opportunity to address the ALJ's concerns at the hearing.
Getting a Lawyer to Help You With Your OTR Request
If you're on the fence about whether you want to work with an attorney or representative, you can read more about the logistics of legal representation in our article on hiring a disability lawyer.
Updated April 6, 2023