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Preparing for Your Social Security Disability Hearing

You have been waiting for many months for your chance to have a Social Security judge decide your claim. You’ve been denied twice and appealed each determination. Up to this point, you really haven’t had an opportunity to explain to a real, live human being why you are unable to work. Finally, the day arrives when you have your chance to tell your story to a judge.

If you have an experienced attorney representing you, you should be very well prepared for your hearing. Your attorney will have provided Social Security with all of the relevant medical records to support your disability claim. In addition, your attorney may have obtained reports or forms from your treating providers which address specific disabling conditions or your ability to perform specific physical activities.

An experienced attorney will meet with you before the hearing to explain the process and what you can expect at the hearing. Every Social Security judge conducts hearings in a slightly different fashion, so it’s important that you are prepared for a variety of possible hearing procedures. Some judges like to ask all the questions and then allow your attorney to follow up with anything additional. Other judges may turn the hearing over to your attorney right from the outset and have your attorney ask all of the questions.

There may be a medical expert, a vocational expert, or both at the hearing. It will be your attorney’s job to question these experts as necessary following their testimony. Either of these experts may also ask you a few questions to clarify your testimony or to provide them with additional background information about you and your claim.

At our office, we typically meet with you in advance of the hearing and provide you with a general outline of the questions you can expect to be asked either by the judge or by me. You will also be provided with a summary of what is contained in the medical records so that your recollection of your medical care and treatment is fresh for your testimony.

Preparation is important because it is comforting to understand the process of the hearing and what type of questions you will be asked. It’s just as important to understand the types of things you will not be asked or things that the judge is not interested in. A hearing typically lasts only an hour or less, so we don’t want to waste the judge’s time with irrelevant or repetitive information. On the other hand, we certainly want to make sure that we provide the judge with all of the important information he or she needs to decide your claim favorably.

Most importantly, and I can’t stress this enough, make sure to testify truthfully and honestly. Social Security judges have heard thousands of people testify about pain and disabling conditions. If the judge suspects that you are exaggerating your symptoms or if you testify about medical problems which do not appear in your medical records, you lose all credibility and will probably lose your claim.

If you have questions about a Social Security disability claim, please feel free to contact Bradt Law Offices for your absolutely free consultation. We have been handling Social Security disability claims all across northern Minnesota for 30 years and are always happy to discuss your case at any stage of the claim process. We can discuss your claim over the phone or arrange for a meeting in our office.

If you have other questions about Social Security disability claims, you can visit our website where we have a list of common questions and answers, including:

1. What are Social Security disability benefits?
2. How much will I receive if Social Security decides I’m disabled?
3. How do I apply for Social Security disability benefits?
4. What do I do if my claim is denied?
5. When should I hire a lawyer to represent me?
6. How do I pay a lawyer in a Social Security disability case?

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Northern Minnesota Social Security Disability Hearings Now Held by Video Conference

If you live in northern Minnesota and have recently been notified of a hearing on your Social Security disability claim, there’s a good chance that it will be held by Video Teleconferencing (VTC). As a result, you may have the following questions:

-What is video teleconferencing?

–Can I request an “in person” hearing, instead of a video conference hearing?

-Are there disadvantages to having a video conference Social Security disability hearing?

Within the past year or so, the Social Security Administration has begun scheduling video conference hearings for northern Minnesota claims. Prior to that, Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) from the Minneapolis office would travel to Duluth or Hibbing and hold hearings where claimants and their representatives could appear live and in person. Apparently, the backlog in northern Minnesota became so great, that the Social Security Administration decided to begin using videoconference hearings with judges from outside the Minnesota area. In our experience, this change seems to have sped up the process of getting to a hearing. In the past, it was not unusual to wait as long as two years for a hearing after filing an initial application for disability benefits.

The videoconference hearings that I have attended with my clients during the past year or so have all involved judges from the St. Louis, Missouri Social Security Administration office.

A videoconference hearing is really no different than a live hearing, except that the judge is appearing on a television screen from his or her office hundreds of miles away. My clients and I typically travel to the federal courthouse in Duluth for the hearings. Generally, a vocational expert (VE) is present at the hearing in Duluth, although sometimes they appear by telephone conference. (Please see this previous post for more information about vocational experts.)

Procedurally, the hearings are identical to the way they would be held if the judge was present. There is a  video screen in the hearing room and the judge can see you and you can see the judge. Any witnesses who will testify are sworn in, and the hearing proceeds in the normal fashion. (See this previous post for a description of what happens at a Social Security disability hearing).  After a while, you hardly notice the fact that the judge is not in the same room with you.

Do you have the option of declining a videoconference and requesting an in person hearing?

Yes. The rules specifically provide that you have that option and the Notice of Hearing will also advise you of that right. If you prefer not to appear at your hearing by video teleconference, you must notify the Social Security hearing office within 5 days after you receive your Hearing Notice. The Hearing Notice also warns you that requesting an in person hearing “might delay your hearing to a date later than the current hearing date”.

Are there disadvantages to having a video conference Social Security disability hearing?

I have not noticed or observed any disadvantages to videoconference hearings and none of my clients have had any problems with the process. Anytime you can get to a disability hearing faster and with fewer delays, I consider that to be an advantage.

Summary

Just like the rest of the world, the Social Security Administration seems to be using more and more of the new technology that is available. After watching many of my clients over the past several years suffer both physically and financially, while waiting months and months for a hearing, I think the new videoconferencing procedure has been a welcome development.

If you have any questions about a Social Security disability claim or if you need an experienced attorney to represent you, please feel free to contact us at any time with questions or to schedule your absolutely free initial consultation. Attorney Steve Bradt has been successfully representing Social Security disability claimants all across northern Minnesota for nearly 30 years. We are happy to assist you in any way that we can with your claim.

Thank you for visiting our blog.

Myths and Facts about the Social Security Disability System

A recent article posted on the website of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) describes some common myths, and then offers the true facts, regarding Social Security disability issues. The article lists 8 myths about the Social Security disability system, including:

MYTH: The current SSDI program is set up so that it keeps able-bodied people out of the workforce when they are employable.

MYTH: It has never been easier to obtain Social Security disability benefits.

MYTH: Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are bankrupting the Social Security disability insurance program by rubber stamping every disability claim they hear.

MYTH: Social Security attorneys get rich by helping undeserving applicants cheat the system.

Check out the article here to read the rest of the myths and the true facts about these common misconceptions about our Social Security disability insurance program.

The NOSSCR website is a good source of information for claimant’s and claimant’s representatives. We highly recommend that you visit the site and see what they have to offer.

If you have questions about your own disability claim, please feel free to contact Bradt Law Offices for your absolutely free consultation. We have been handling Social Security disability claims all across northern Minnesota for over 29 years and are always happy to discuss your claim at any stage of the claim process.

Thank you for visiting our blog.

Go Online to Access your Social Security Statement

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, today announced that in less than two months’ time, one million people have gone online, created a My Social Security account and viewed their Social Security Statement.  
                   
“The online Social Security Statement is a huge success,” Commissioner Astrue said.  “The onlineStatement meets our commitment to provide Americans with an easy, efficient process to obtain an estimate of their potential Social Security benefits.  I recommend that everyone get in the habit of checking their online Statement each year, around their birthday, for example.” 
                                                   
The online Statement provides estimates for retirement, disability and survivors benefits.  It also provides workers as young as 18 a convenient year-round way to determine whether their earnings are accurately posted to their Social Security records, which was not possible when the agency mailed paper Statementsonly to those 25 and older.
 
On May 1, Social Security unveiled this new addition to its popular suite of electronic services at www.socialsecurity.gov/mystatement, which allows people to access their Social Security earnings and benefit information securely and conveniently. 

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), users are giving the online Statement a score of 89 — making it competitive with Social Security’s other top-rated, best-in-government online services, such as the Retirement Estimator and online retirement application. The ACSI tracks trends in customer’s satisfaction and provides valuable benchmarking insights for companies and government agencies. 

To access your online Statement, you must be at least 18 years old, have a Social Security number, have a valid email address and have a U.S. mailing address. 

To learn more or to create your own account, please go to www.socialsecurity.gov/mystatement.

The social security website is a  valuable source of information about Social Security disability claims or your particular account information.  Bradt Law Offices encourages you to take advantage of this valuable resource.  The home page for the Social Security administration website is at www.SSA.gov.

If you have questions about a Social Security disability claim or the process involved, or if you need help in applying for benefits or representation at a hearing, contact us at any time for your absolutely free consultation.

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Looking for Social Security Definitions? A Glossary Of Social Security Terms

Have you received a decision from Social Security, a letter from your local SSA office or any other correspondence filled with abbreviations that have left you scratching your head?  Well, here is a handy link to the Social Security administration website and a glossary of Social Security terms.  Just click on a letter, find your word or phrase and the definition is right there for you.

If you have questions about a Social Security disability claim or the process involved, or if you need help in applying for benefits or representation at a hearing, contact us at any time for your absolutely free consultation.

Thanks for visiting our blog.

Why is there a Vocational Expert at my Social Security Disability Hearing?

If you have recently been through, or are getting ready for, a Social Security disability hearing, this may be one of the questions you have.  You may have received a notice about your hearing, telling you that there will be a Vocational Expert (VE) present at the hearing.  Some of the questions you might have are:

What is a vocational expert (VE)?

A vocational expert is a person who has experience and knowledge in the areas of jobs, job skills, job placement, labor markets, employment opportunities and similar matters. Ideally, the vocational expert testifying at a Social Security disability hearing would be a professional who spends a significant portion of time working to assist people in finding competitive employment in the workplace. Presumably, this would give the VE practical and reliable experience in assessing the availability of jobs and how they are performed in the workplace. The person who serves as VE at your hearing has been hired by the Social Security Administration as an “expert” to provide testimony on those issues in response to questions from the judge.

What does the vocational expert know about my situation?

The VE will review your Social Security file before the hearing to learn about your previous work experience. She will evaluate the jobs you have performed and classify your past employment in terms of skill levels and physical requirements. The vocational expert is almost always present at the hearing and will listen to your testimony to get additional information. On a rare occasion, at least in my experience, a vocational expert will not be present at the hearing and will be joined in on a conference call to answer questions from the judge.

What does the vocational expert do at my hearing?

After you have answered questions by the judge and your attorney or representative, the judge will then have a number of questions for the vocational expert. (At some hearings, there will also be a medical expert present to offer testimony, but that’s the subject for another post).

The judge may ask the VE if she has any additional questions for you to clarify your employment history or some of the jobs you have previously performed. The judge will ask the VE to describe your previous employment in terms of skills and physical requirements. After that, the judge will usually ask the VE a series of hypothetical questions, based upon your claimed disabilities and limitations.

The VE will offer opinions about whether you are able to return to any of your previous jobs or whether you can perform other jobs which exist in significant numbers within the regional or national economy. Depending upon what physical restrictions and limitations the judge is using, the vocational expert’s opinions will usually make the difference in whether you win or lose your claim. For a more detailed explanation about how the judge determines if you are disabled, please see this earlier post

Can I or my attorney ask the VE questions?

Yes. After the VE finishes answering the judge’s questions, you or your attorney may ask the VE additional questions (this is called “cross examination”).

Summary

This was a very short and generalized explanation of what a vocational expert is and does. Every Social Security disability claim is different, because every claim is based upon the specific facts and circumstances of your life. Each case is based upon a unique mixture of medical information, disabling conditions, educational backgrounds and work histories. Hopefully, this will give you a basic understanding of the vocational expert’s role in your Social Security disability hearing.

If you have questions about a Social Security disability claim, please feel free to contact us for your absolutely free consultation. Thank you for visiting our blog.

How Does Social Security Decide If You Are Disabled?

When you apply for Social Security disability benefits, in all likelihood you will be denied. The majority of applications are denied and your best chance of receiving benefits is to “hang in there” through the appeal process until you get to a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Many people are completely baffled about the process the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to determine who is, and is not, disabled. The determinations often seems to make no sense, particularly when you have significant disabilities and still lose your case.

Definition of “Disability”

Social Security disability law defines “disability” as an inability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” The fact that you can no longer perform your regular job duties does not necessarily qualify you for Social Security disability benefits.

There is a process which SSA follows in every case to determine who qualifies for disability benefits. The process is called the “five step sequential evaluation process”. If you are found to be disabled, or not disabled, after any of these steps, the process ends and SSA does not consider the next step.

Step 1. Are you engaging in “substantial gainful activity” (SGA)?

This is SSA’s determination as to whether you are working, as defined by SSA. They consider such things as what you are doing, if you are being paid and how much you are being paid. If your earnings are below a certain level, your work activities will not be considered substantial gainful activity.

Step 2. Do you have a severe, medically determinable impairment?

There must be medical evidence to support any claim of impairment. This generally means medical records or doctor’s reports which document your claim that you have an impairment of some kind which limits your ability to work. If SSA finds that you have impairments, but that they are not “severe”, the process ends. There is also a durational requirement, which means that your impairment must have lasted, or be expected to last, for a continuous period of 12 months.

Step 3. Does your impairment meet or equal a “Listing”?

If you are found to have a “severe” impairment, your claim moves on to step 3. SSA has a Listing of Impairments, which includes a wide variety of medical conditions, illnesses and other disorders. The listings include both physical and psychological conditions. (Examples: amputations, coronary artery disease, bipolar disorder, lumbosacral spine disorders, multiple sclerosis, etc.)

If the medical evidence establishes that your condition or conditions meets the requirements of a particular Listing, you are found to be disabled. Even if your impairment does not quite meet the definition in a Listing, SSA can find that your impairment is medically equivalent to, or “equals”, a Listing. If your impairment meets or equals a Listing, you are awarded disability. If not, the process continues to Step 4.

Step 4. Can you still do your past relevant work?

At this step, SSA will determine what your physical abilities are, based upon your impairments and the medical evidence. This assessment of your abilities is called Residual Functional Capacity (RFC). Your “past relevant work” means any job you have performed in the last 15 years. If SSA determines that you are capable of performing any of your past relevant work, you are not disabled. If you are not, the final determination of disability is made at Step 5.

Step 5. Are you capable of performing other work?

At this step in the process, there are a great many factors that come into play, including your RFC, age, education and work experience. This is often the hardest part of the process for most claimants to understand. SSA is not looking at your local labor market or your community in determining whether you can work. Rather, the question is whether you can perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national or regional economy. It makes no difference whether any of those jobs are close to where you live or whether they have openings. If SSA determines that you are physically capable of performing any of those identified jobs, then you are not disabled.

Summary

This was only intended to be a general summary of the disability determination process. There are many thousands of pages of Social Security regulations, rules, guidelines and decisions which govern the Social Security disability system. For every rule there are exceptions. At a Social Security disability hearing, a vocational expert and/or a medical expert frequently will be present to testify about your impairments, your RFC and your ability to perform past or other jobs. The judge will base her decision after reviewing all of the evidence and opinions from the witnesses.

What We Recommend

If you have any questions about the Social Security disability process or your claim, please feel free to contact us for your absolutely free consultation. Whether we can help you or not, you should always follow through on your claim through any appeals and hearings. You have nothing to lose but the time you have invested in your claim. The majority of people who ultimately receive Social Security disability benefits do so at the hearing level where they finally get to explain their disability to a real person – the Judge.

Except in rare cases, we generally do not become involved in a claim until after your second denial. That’s when you are requesting a hearing with a Social Security judge. At that point, we would begin to serve as your representative. We obtain medical records, request reports from your doctors and make sure that Social Security has everything in its file that might be helpful to your claim. We meet with you ahead of time to prepare you for the hearing and attend the hearing with you as your representative. Best of all, you only have to pay us if we win.

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What is a Free Consultation in a Northern Minnesota Social Security Disability Case?

Okay, maybe this seems like a really silly question. However, if you are considering calling a lawyer about a social security disability case,  you probably want to make sure that you are not going to receive a bill, at any time, for anything.  Free should mean free, right?

I can’t speak for any other law firm, but at Bradt Law Offices, a free consultation for your social security disability case means just that – A FREE CONSULTATION.  I don’t know how to say it any more clearly.

A consultation might mean a simple phone conversation to discuss your claim. The phone call is free.  No charge.

If we discuss your claim on the phone and decide to schedule a meeting, the meeting is also free.  No charge.  We can meet in our office, in the hospital or at your home.  Free.  No charge.

In all seriousness, I hope that I have made my point.  If you contact us about your claim, you will never be charged for a phone call, a meeting or any other type of consultation about your claim.  It makes no difference whether we take your case, or not.  If you hire us, we will pay the necessary expenses to obtain medical records and reports, expert opinions, etc.  You will only be asked to reimburse us if we win your case. Unless you have a very unusual case or we make different arrangements with you, you will never get a bill from us or be asked to pay us any money out of your own pocket before the successful end of your case.

Contingent Fee Arrangements for all Social Security Disability Claims

In Social Security Disability cases, attorney fees are set by law and we only get paid if we win.  Not only are the fees contingent on our success, but our fees are controlled by law and must be approved by a Social Security Judge.   Attorney fees are 25% of any back benefits we recover for you, up to a maximum fee of $6000.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Experienced Legal Advice

If you have any questions, at any time, about a possible Social Security Disability claim, please don’t be afraid to call or e-mail us.   We are happy to help and will always give you an honest opinion, based on 28 years of experience helping injured people all across northern Minnesota and on the Iron Range.

Oh, and one more thing – the coffee is free, too.

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This blog/website is intended to provide general information and is not intended to substitute for individual legal counsel on any specific problem. No attorney-client relationship is created or intended to be created by use or viewing of this blog/website. Any visitor seeking specific legal advice should contact an attorney. Any links provided from this site, other than to Bradt Law Offices, are for informational purposes only. We have no control over and make no warranties as to the accuracy of information contained on any linked sites. The information presented on this website is based on the laws of the state of Minnesota. Anyone viewing this website who resides outside of the state of Minnesota should be aware that the laws in their state may differ. Every effort has been made to present accurate and current information on this blog/website. If you have a question about the accuracy of any of the information presented here, please contact Bradt Law Offices at 218-327-1235.