What is the role of the Administrative Law Judge?

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What do Tennesseans think about the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in a Social Security Disability Hearing?

Many Tennesseans have a particular image in mind when they think of judges in court, an administrative law judge often do not resemble the appearance established by popular culture. In fact, an administrative law judge in a Social Security Disability Hearing performs a lot of similar tasks as that of a judge.

The role of the administrative law judge (ALJ) in a Social Security disability appeal also differs from the role of a courtroom judge in some respects.. For applicants seeking Social Security disability benefits, the ALJ often plays a critical role in determining whether benefits should be awarded during a Social Security Disability hearing.

Basic Information About ALJs

Unlike many judges who are elected by the residents of their voting district, ALJs are appointed by the federal government to hear cases involving administrative agencies such as the Social Security Administration (SSA) . Administrative law judges who work with the SSA usually review evidence and issue decisions regarding cases that have been appealed after reconsideration by agency staff.

The ALJ presides over hearings and may approve or deny a claim for benefits. Disability hearings are usually conducted via the SSA's Office of Hearings Operations. Due to an increase in the number of disability hearings, though, a backlog of cases has developed.

To speed up the hearing process, the SSA is encouraging many applicants to have their hearings conducted by video. In these hearings, the ALJ may be in an office close by or far away, managing proceedings remotely via a video teleconferencing process.

What an ALJ Does Before a Hearing?

Prior to a disability hearing, the ALJ usually reviews all the information contained in the claimant's Social Security file. This file should contain medical records and information about the claimant's employment history.

In addition, the file contains information about why the SSA employees who reviewed the file originally and on reconsideration believe that benefits should be denied or discontinued. Because the ALJ will be familiar with this information, it is wise for the claimant to have arguments prepared to refute these findings.

During a Disability Hearing

During the disability hearing, the ALJ conducts proceedings primarily by asking questions of the claimant regarding their medical condition(s) and treatment, past employment, and limitations imposed by their condition(s). After questioning, the ALJ often provides claimants the opportunity to speak on their own behalf, have an attorney speak on their behalf, or have the attorney ask questions to reveal information that would be advantageous to their claim.

The ALJ may also question expert witnesses who are present, either in person, over the phone, or via video conference. It is very common for a vocational expert to testify concerning the claimant's ability to perform either past types of employment or other available types of jobs. Often the judge will ask hypothetical questions involving the medical conditions or limitations of the claimant to determine whether the claimant is able to work at any gainful employment.

The ALJ may also ask a medical expert for information or opinions regarding the claimant's condition. When experts testify, the claimant has the opportunity to ask them questions as well. Skillful questioning could make the claim appear much more viable to the ALJ, which is just one of many reasons while retaining a lawyer to help with this process could be beneficial.

The Impact of the  Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)

In a disability benefits case, the role of an administrative law judge (ALJ) is extremely important. In my opinion the three most important things in a disability case are:

  • a complete record,
  • having a Medical Source Statement (MSS),
  • and the judge assigned to the case. 

While the law is written in black and white, judges interpret the law vastly differently from one judge to another. Some judges pay at 10%, others the average of 44% and my favorites the ones that pay at 85%. This leads to some very strange results for Claimants because based on their knowledge and then what happens is incongruent and is not logical.

The employees who review initial claims often deny claims for disability benefits, and those reconsidering cases also frequently deny claims. As such, a hearing before an ALJ provides a key opportunity to present evidence to persuade the Social Security Administration that an applicant qualifies to receive disability benefits.

If the judge issues an unfavorable ruling, the case may be reviewed by the SSA Appeals Council and appealed to a federal court. However, the factual findings of the ALJ will be given great weight in subsequent appeals. Call Betz & Baril  to work with an experienced attorneys before presenting your case. 

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