In an effort to reduce the backlog of cases at Social Security's disability hearing offices, over the past several years Social Security has implemented and expanded a program of disability appeal hearings via video teleconference (VTC). During a video hearing, the disability claimant and his or her representative appear at a specified location, often a Social Security field office located near the claimant, while the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) appears remotely by video.
Video hearings are frequently scheduled for claimants who live far from a Social Security Office of Hearing Operations (OHO), where in-person hearings are held. In addition, video hearings are always arranged for individuals whose cases have been transferred to the National Hearing Center (NHC), which was itself another effort by Social Security to reduce the wait time for hearings.
From Social Security's point of view, video hearings offer a number of benefits, including increased efficiency and lower travel expenses for ALJs. For claimants, video hearings tend to be more conveniently located and are usually scheduled more quickly than in-person hearings. Still, for a wide variety of reasons, many disability attorneys prefer in-person hearings for their clients. For one, recent government statistics show that claimants whose hearings are held in person have a 3% better chance of being approved for benefits than a claimant whose hearing is held by videoconference.
Fortunately, Social Security's regulations grant disability claimants an absolute right to an-person hearing, even if they've already been scheduled for a VTC hearing or their case is at the National Hearing Center.
Here are a few points to consider when deciding whether you should accept a video hearing or demand an in-person hearing:
- It is easier for an ALJ to assess your credibility in-person rather than through a video screen. Your credibility can be a major part of your disability case, especially if you have mental impairments or physical issues that don't appear on x-rays or MRIs, such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. The cameras and television screens used in video hearings make it nearly impossible for the judge to look claimants in the eye to evaluate their credibility. Moreover, the ALJ may fail to notice that the claimant walked with a limp while entering the hearing room, that he appeared to be in pain while seated during the hearing, or that he exhibited scars, lesions, or other deformities.
- Technical difficulties are almost inevitable with VTC hearings. Although the technology has improved somewhat in the last few years, VTC hearings still experience blurry video, audio delays, power interruptions, and a host of other technical glitches. If it can go wrong in a video hearing, you can bet it has gone wrong, and probably will again. These problems are only exacerbated if a vocational or medical expert is testifying remotely as well. If technical issues are preventing you from having a full and fair hearing, request that the judge reschedule you for an in-person hearing.
- Refusing a video hearing will almost certainly delay a hearing on your case. While hearing offices are instructed to reschedule in-person hearings as quickly as possible, the length of the delay will vary greatly from one hearing office to another. Generally the additional wait for a face-to-face hearing is anywhere from a few weeks to three or four months. If you're going to object to a video hearing, do so at the earliest available opportunity, which is usually after you've received a Notice of Hearing containing the words "I Plan To Use Video Teleconferencing At Your Hearing." The hearing notice will also contain instructions for how to request an in-person hearing.
- Social Security will reimburse your travel expenses if you live more than 75 miles from the hearing office. Don't simply agree to a video hearing because you cannot afford to travel to the nearest disability hearing office. If you have to travel more than 75 miles (one way) to the ODAR office for your hearing, a Social Security employee will ask you to fill out a form for mileage reimbursement. Your reimbursement check should arrive in the mail several weeks later.
- If you request a face-to-face hearing, Social Security will try to keep the same judge assigned to your case. To discourage "judge shopping," or seeking a more favorable judge to hear your case, Social Security tries not to transfer jurisdiction of your case to another judge after you've requested an in-person hearing. But oftentimes the agency has little choice, whether because the original VTC judge is located across the country or because your case was being handled by the National Hearing Center, where all hearings are done via video. Of course, a change in judge can work in your favor or to your detriment, so you may want to discuss this topic with your disability attorney who is likely to be familiar with the judges in your area.
If your attorney believes your case file contains overwhelming evidence of disability, or if you have a well-supported opinion from your treating physician stating that you have severe work-related limitations, you may prefer the convenience of a video hearing. Otherwise, consider an in-person hearing if at all possible.
If have had a VTC hearing scheduled, you may want to contact an experienced disability attorney for advice on your case. Search Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory for an attorney in your area.