The person who presides in a Social Security disability hearing is an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Although many judges do not wear judicial robes and you will not be expected to stand up when the judge comes into the room, the Social Security judge is entitled to the same respect that you would pay to a court judge.
The judge’s job is to issue an independent decision about your entitlement to disability benefits, a decision that is not influenced by the fact that your case was denied at the time of your initial application and on reconsideration. In fact, more than half of judges’ decisions nationwide are in favor of the claimant. These are the best odds of winning at any step in the entire Social Security appeals system.
The informal Social Security hearing is not what we call an “adversarial” hearing. That is, there is no lawyer on the other side who is going to cross-examine you. Judges usually do not “cross-examine” a claimant. The judge is neither your adversary nor your opponent: the judge’s job is to find out the facts about your disability claim.
Many people, by the time they get to a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, are angry at the Social Security system. Their applications for disability benefits have been denied twice, often without any logical reason given for the denial. This system is cumbersome. It is time-consuming with all of its appeals and delays, and it is frustrating.
But, it is important not to take your anger out on the judge. The judge did not create this system. The judge is not responsible for the problems that you have had with the system. Since the judge probably already knows all of the problems with the Social Security appeals system, you do not need to explain these problems. It also isn’t helpful to ask the judge any questions about your case. For example, don’t ask, “Why have I been denied?” “Why has it taken so long for me to have a hearing?” and so forth.
The only time you should ask the judge a question is when you do not understand what is being asked of you. Judges and representatives sometimes ask simple questions in complicated ways. This is a shortcoming of the legal profession. Don’t be intimidated by it. If you’re not sure you understand a question, don’t be embarrassed to ask politely for an explanation.
The best way to treat the judge is with the courtesy and candor that you would show an old friend whom you haven’t seen for several years—someone that you want to bring up-to-date about all of your problems. In other words, it’s okay for you to talk to the judge in “regular” words. You do not have to use lawyer words or doctor words. In fact, it’s much better if you do not use such terminology; instead, talk to the judge the same way you would talk to an old friend.