In a previous blog post, I set out several discussion points that I raise with my clients in our pre-hearing conferences. One of those discussion points has to do with “credibility” – are you a believable witness?
While I think that the quality and nature of your medical record functions as the most important factor as to whether your case will be approved, your credibility is almost as important.
When I refer to credibility, I am speaking of whether you come across as truthful and believable. Credibility is not something you can manufacture – if your medical condition is not serious and you could perform work, you will face a difficult time winning. However, it is possible for a truthful, legitimately disabled person to lose because he or she did not appear believable in his/her testimony.
Realize that every claimant that a judge meets during the day is asserting that he/she is disabled. Therefore, your demeanor and your testimony must come across as believable in order to be successful at the hearing. Here are some tips on how to come across as a credible witness at a Social Security Disability hearing.
1. Dress Appropriately
Chosen court attire often aids in determining the credibility of the claimant. Wherein State and Federal courts require a minimum of casual dress, Social Security hearings are generally less formal. Although informal, how a claimant dresses should be such that it conveys respect to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Torn blue jeans and tank tops are examples of clothing that should be avoided at a disability hearing. This is not to say that you have to dress formal; donning formal clothing is unnecessary, and in fact, can send a conflicting message to the judge. For example, an applicant wearing high heels although she insists that she cannot walk without pain will definitely make any testimony she gives less credible. A rule of thumb is to dress conservatively but comfortably.
2. Be specific in your answers
An individual’s ability to answer with informative responses to questions posed by a judge will result in the individual’s testimony being credible. For instance, during a hearing, it is common for the ALJ to ask the applicant questions regarding his/her physical ability. Questions like “How far can you walk?”; “How much weight can you carry?”; and “How long can you sit?” are all questions that an applicant can expect to be asked of him/her during a hearing. It is extremely hard for a judge to consider the profound effect of an individual’s impairment if the applicant responds to a judge’s inquiry with “I don’t know.” If an applicant fails to be specific, then the judge will more than likely consider answers of this type not credible.
3. Don’t over-exaggerate your pain
Physical pain is common to most disabilities. An individual’s disability caseworker as well as any ALJ expects disability applicants to list pain as a chief complaint. As such, it is common during the hearing for the Judge to inquire as to the level of pain that a claimant experiences on a routine basis. Again, although a degree of physical pain is expected, stating pain consistently at level 10 is considered an exaggeration and will result in that portion of the individual’s testimony not being considered. The basis for this decision is that a consistent pain at level 10 would result in a mental deficiency. It is unlikely that the individual experiencing pain at level ten 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, would be able to be present during a hearing, much less offer supporting and competent testimony. A rule of thumb for describing pain is to state the pain experienced in percentages. For example, an individual may experience pain at level five, seventy-five percent of the days, while the other twenty-five percent is at a level 10. It is also helpful to describe any events that trigger an increase in pain. For instance, individuals with RSD, a nerve condition, experience an increase in pain during cold weather. Doing this will also help you to come across as being specific.
So, before you attend your Social Security Disability hearing, just remember that credibility is an important element and be thinking of ways to appear credibly. Without credibility, even a deserving claimant’s chance of receiving benefits is compromised.
Jonathan Ginsberg represents Social Security disability claimants in Georgia. In practice for over 29 years, Jonathan publishes a widely known disability blog, a podcast and several disability web sites. In 2004, Jonathan published a "how to" book about Social Security disability called the Disability Answer Guide. Jonathan lives with his wife and 2 children in Atlanta.