Before the covid pandemic, Social Security disability Hearings were usually held in person in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). As a disability attorney I enjoyed live Hearings. I thought it was important for the ALJ to meet my client in person and observe firsthand how his or her disabilities impacted them.
However, since covid the Social Security Administration (SSA) has gone to telephone Hearings, and will soon be conducting remote video hearings. Are live, in-person Hearings a thing of the past? While there has been no definitive announcement from the SSA, the SSA Commissioner, Andrew Saul, recently said that virtual hearings will continue, “for the foreseeable future.”
I believe that virtual Hearings will continue indefinitely. In addition to the safety concerns of in person Hearings, there is the issue of money (as there always is). The SSA will save millions of dollars each year by not having to pay for office space. This cost-cutting factor cannot be underestimated.
What does this mean for disability Claimants and their attorneys? First, without the ability of the ALJ to observe the Claimant's demeaner, the medical record becomes even more important than usual. I always gather all of my client's medical records and submit to the Judge before the Hearing if possible. I also ask my client's treating physicians to provide Medical Source Statements that outline his or her disabling impairments. These Statements are made part of the record and provide the Judge with evidence supporting my client's allegations of disability.
Second, if the Claimant has any visible signs of illness or impairments, such as diabetic ulcers, skin conditions or deformities, he or she should take photos of these conditions and submit them as evidence before the Hearing. While usually not becoming a part of the medical records per se, the ALJ can consider these pictures in making the final determination of disability.
Finally, there are the practical considerations. Claimants should make sure their phone is fully charged, that they have a quiet place to talk (they are required by law to be alone), and that they speak slowly and clearly while providing testimony. It can be frustrating to participate in a phone Hearing, as there are usually five people on the phone at the same time (the Claimant, the attorney, the ALJ, the court reporter and an expert witness). I tell my clients to make sure to let me or the ALJ finish the questions completely before answering to avoid having people talking over one another.
I'm looking forward to participating in video hearings when the SSA starts using that method, as the ALJ will at least be able to visually observe my clients. Until then, we will have to get used to and continue to prepare for telephone Hearings.