Social Security Disability Hearing: How to Act Before a Judge

Be polite and concise at your disability hearing, and most importantly, answer the judge's questions.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

When you have a Social Security disability hearing, you'll go before an administrative law judge (ALJ) to make your case. The ALJs who work for the Social Security Administration (SSA) decide disability cases mainly on the weight of the medical evidence, including:

  • x-rays
  • lab results
  • treatment notes, and
  • statements from physicians and other healthcare providers.

But the ALJ will take your appearance and testimony into account as well. Here's how you should act in front of the ALJ at your disability hearing.

Show Up to Your Disability Hearing on Time

There's simply no excuse for being late for your disability hearing. You'll know the date, time, and location of the hearing in advance. Even if you're not the sort of person who's usually late for appointments, there are a few things you might want to do to ensure you get to your ALJ hearing on time:

  • Do a dry run so you know where to go. Make sure you know where to park, what entrance to use, and where in the building your hearing room is located.
  • Leave earlier than you think you need to. Give yourself more time to get there than you need. That way, unpredictable issues (like road construction) won't make you late. It's better to be too early and have to wait than to show up late.
  • Plan in advance for an emergency—like how you'll get there if your planned ride is suddenly unavailable or who'll watch your kids if your planned babysitter cancels at the last minute. Have backup plans.

Be Polite to Everyone at the ALJ Hearing

Your words, actions, and attire at the hearing should be respectful. Calling the judge "Your Honor" is a sign of respect, as is standing when the ALJ enters the room.

Remember that the hearing isn't adversarial (there won't be a lawyer for Social Security arguing against you). Statistically, the ALJ hearing is your best shot at winning your disability claim. You don't want to do anything to sabotage your case.

Any stress you've been feeling because your initial disability claim was denied needs to be checked at the door. The disability hearing isn't the time or place to vent your frustration at "the system." And it's never helpful to be rude to the ALJ or anyone at your disability hearing.

Your words, actions, and attire should be respectful. Calling the judge "Your Honor" is a sign of respect, as is standing when the ALJ enters the room.

Be Honest: Your Credibility is Important to Your Case

When it comes to making your case for disability, your credibility matters. If the ALJ suspects that you aren't answering questions honestly, the judge will most likely deny your SSDI or SSI claim.

To give the ALJ the right impression, your responses to the judge's questions should be complete, straightforward, and honest. Don't exaggerate your medical condition, pain, or the limitations caused by your physical or mental impairments. ALJs hear hundreds of disability cases each year (sometimes holding as many as four to six hearings in a single day) and are very good at spotting exaggeration.

For instance, if the ALJ asks you to rate your daily pain on a 1-10 scale, tell the truth. Don't just say it's a 10 every day—that much pain would probably have you in the emergency room. Answering that your daily pain level is a five or seven is much more believable while still conveying that you're in a lot of pain.

By the same token, you should never minimize how much your impairments affect you daily. If you can't even tie your shoes without gasping in pain, say so. Be truthful about how your condition interferes with your ability to work and perform basic life tasks.

Be Specific When Answering the ALJ's Questions

Everything you say at your disability hearing should help to give the ALJ a clear picture of your impairment and how it affects your ability to work and perform daily tasks. To do that, your answers to the judge's questions need to be as specific as possible.

For instance, if your condition or the pain it causes affects the range of motion in a particular joint, interferes with your ability to stoop, or interrupts your sleep, say so.

And explain the issue using specific terms and amounts. The ALJ needs you to paint a picture with concrete examples. So, don't just say that your condition makes your arm weak. Instead, explain that you can't lift a gallon of milk or you can't raise your arm past your shoulder.

Get more tips on how to answer questions at your disability hearing.

How to Act During a Phone Hearing

Since the beginning of COVID, it's become common for Social Security disability hearings to be held by telephone. Although you have the right to request an in-person hearing, doing so might mean waiting even longer for a hearing date.

In a phone hearing, just like an in-person or video hearing, you'll want to give the ALJ the right impression. In addition to following the above tips, there are a few extra steps you should take for a phone hearing:

  • Go to a quiet room in your home where you won't be distracted (leave the TV and radio turned off).
  • Don't use the speaker phone on your cell phone (to avoid echoes and feedback). It's important that both you and the ALJ can hear everything clearly.
  • Use the "do not disturb" setting on your cell phone so you won't get calls or notifications during the hearing.
  • Use the mute button to reduce background noise, but remember to unmute when speaking.
  • Make sure someone else is taking care of your kids (and pets) so you won't be interrupted.
  • Don't speak unless you're asked a direct question, and wait until the ALJ has completely finished asking it before you answer.
  • If you don't understand a question, ask that it be repeated or explained.
  • Don't eat or drink, or do anything else that's noisy or distracting during the hearing. You need to focus all your attention on the phone call.

Answer the Questions You're Asked

Most disability hearings don't take very long—usually less than an hour. As a result, the ALJ doesn't have time to hear the entire history of your disability and your medical condition.

If and when you're asked questions, answer only the question you were asked. Avoid the temptation to provide additional information. You might accidentally add details that hurt rather than help your case.

Review and Submit Your Medical Records Ahead of Time

To take full advantage of the hearing, do some prep work ahead of time. One of the most common reasons Social Security initially denies most disability claims is that there isn't enough medical evidence to prove the applicant is disabled. When you take your case before the ALJ, you have the chance to add to the medical evidence presented.

Make sure you have up-to-date medical records on file, and that you submit your records well in advance of the hearing (and at least five days ahead of time). The Social Security Administration doesn't always gather the most recent medical evidence for you before your hearing. So it's up to you to make sure the ALJ has current medical evidence that shows your impairment keeps you from working.

You're allowed to request a complete copy of your case file before your hearing. Do so, and then take some time to review your medical file before your ALJ hearing. Make sure you're familiar with both the original medical evidence you submitted with your application and your most recent medical reports.

You'll want to make sure you can quickly and naturally answer questions about your medical condition, treatments, medications, and your limitations. Organizing your file is a good way to review information and dates. Learn more about how to prepare for your disability hearing.

Getting Help at the Hearing

Your best chance of winning your disability claim is at the ALJ hearing. And working with a disability lawyer improves your chances. An attorney will help you prepare your case and yourself for your disability hearing.

Learn more about what to expect at a Social Security hearing.

Updated August 19, 2022

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