In previous posts, I have discussed at length what actually happens at a Social Security Disability hearing. However, I have failed to discuss the topic of video hearings (i.e. teleconference hearings via satellite), which are occurring more and more frequently these days as part of the SSA’s overall plan to reduce the Social Security Disability backlog. While most of you will experience a more traditional hearing in which you are actually in the room with the Judge and/or expert witnesses, some of you will undoubtedly experience the hearing in this alternative video conferencing type format, so it’s a good idea to know what it’s all about.
The ins and outs of video hearings
In all honesty, there exists only one significant difference between a typical disability hearing and one that is conducted via video, and that is the presence of an actual Administrative Law Judge (or ALJ). Instead of being physically present in the room where the claimant and his/her attorney are, the Judge may be hundreds of miles away. Although separated by miles, however, the ALJ is still able to see, communicate and observe your demeanor in real time. The ALJ is even able to zoom in or out, depending upon his or her preference. This capability allows the ALJ to view the proceedings from a multitude of angles. This is why regardless of the avenue in which a disability hearing is conducted, the guidelines for how you should present yourself remain the same. Here are a few tips on testifying and presenting your case at a video hearing:
- Tell the truth
- Do not exaggerate symptoms or pain level
- Be able to describe a typical day in your life
- Dress appropriately for your medical condition
The advantages and disadvantages of video hearings
Video hearings provide two major benefits: first, hearing dates are typically set sooner. To the disability applicant who has been waiting over a year for a hearing, the ability to have a hearing date sooner is a welcomed invitation that most applicants eagerly accept. Secondly, the location of the hearing is often closer to the location where the claimant resides. For those individuals whose medical condition prevents them from traveling long distances, video conferences are often a preferred choice if the claimant might otherwise have to travel many miles just to get to the hearing. Bottom line: video hearings provide convenience.
Typically with any advantage there is a likewise disadvantage. But as far as I can tell, the only disadvantage to a video conference stems mainly from personal preference; some claimants might simply prefer good old-fashioned hearings in which they are face to face with and in the actual room with the Judge deciding their case. Ultimately, some claimants may not feel comfortable testifying via video, whether it’s because they are not used to it or are simply principled against it. But having been involved with many video hearings, I can say that it is easy to get used to very fast – even within minutes. So I recommend having an open mind about the video hearing if you come to find out that yours will indeed be taking place via satellite.
A final point that should be made is that the claimant is the final decision maker in whether a hearing is conducted via video hearing or not. It is your choice. While some attorneys and clients welcome the idea of video hearings because it speeds up the disability process, there are those attorneys and/or clients that do not feel comfortable with the ALJ not being physically present in the same room as the claimant. So, if you are opposed to a video conference and prefer a traditional disability hearing, simply voice your objection and a hearing date will be scheduled when available. However, please keep in mind that when a hearing has to be rescheduled, it can take up to several months to reset the hearing date. So if you are already tired of waiting, it is probably a good idea to go to your video hearing and get it over with!
Video Hearings vs. Traditional Disability Hearings: Similarities and Differences
How are video hearings and traditional hearings similar?
- Both types of hearing are done in real-time.
- Your representative/attorney is present with you at all times.
- The rule for cross-examining a witness is the same.
How do video hearings and traditional hearings differ?
- The Administrative Law Judge is many miles away from the location where the claimant and representative are located.
- The ALJ assigned to a case may or may not be a Judge common to the area. Administrative Law Judges are typically assigned to certain geographical areas. As a result, experienced representatives typically have prior hearing experience with a select group of judges. In video conferences, the judge assigned to an applicant’s matter is pooled from any number of locations. As a result, a representative’s knowledge of the assigned Judge may be limited. An advantage of being familiar with a judge is that the attorney knows his/her demeanor. They have an idea of what the judge expects and how he or she has a tendency to rule. This can be a major advantage in preparing for and presenting a case.
- The Vocational Expert and/or Medical Expert may or may not be present at the location where the judge is conducting the hearing.
- Traditional hearings take longer to schedule, whereas video hearings are scheduled more quickly.
Final assessment on Video Hearings
In closing, if you are given the option of having a video hearing in your matter versus the traditional hearing where all parties are present in one room, consider your options carefully and then discuss your thoughts and concerns with your representative. Most seasoned representatives feel comfortable in either situation. Choosing to have your hearing conducted via video will more than likely result in you receiving a decision more quickly. For most, this is exactly what is needed since it can take so long to get to the hearing level in the first place. My advice: be open-minded; there is really nothing to fear about a video hearing.
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.