The short answer is: extremely important; but let’s start from the beginning.
Folks who apply for social security disability are beginning a long, multi-step process that begins with an application and often ends with a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. How does a claimant end up in front of a judge at an in-person hearing? Once a person submits an application for social security disability, the social security administration will collect medical records and review the evidence that comes from those records. The DDS (department of disability services) will also apply the rules of the 5-step process to the claim in order to make what is called an initial decision. The initial decision is denied in approximately 65% of all cases nationwide. The initial decision portion of the process can take a long period of time to complete, and during this time social security may request specific information from the claimant. This information can be related to medical treatment providers, the claimant’s own description of physical or mental impairments, claimant’s work history, and other important information needed for the claim to be decided initially. Once the decision is made, many states have what is called the reconsideration process. Reconsideration is a chance to appeal the initial decision to another set of eyes, and for the claimant or the claimant’s representative to add more information such as medical records recently compiled to the claim. Reconsideration claims are also denied at a relatively high rate. If the claimant resides in a state that does not have the reconsideration step of the process, the claimant will have the chance to appeal the initial decision to an administrative law judge and request a hearing. If the state does utilize the reconsideration step in the process and the claimant is again denied at that level, the claimant can then appeal to an administrative law judge and request a hearing at that time.
The hearing is the last step in the social security disability process, aside from appeals to the appeals council or to federal court. There are specific reasons why a decision by an administrative law judge may be appealed to the appeals council, but many claimants simply elect to begin the application process again instead. Each case and each decision is unique to each case, so that decision can and should be made with the assistance of an experienced attorney representative.
Once the hearing has been set, the administrative law judge will review the claimant’s file and prepare for the hearing. At this point, an experienced attorney will have prepared the claimant thoroughly for the hearing as well. A disability lawyer will have also made certain that all medical records have been requested, received, and uploaded to the judge’s file prior to the hearing. There are also other useful forms called medical source statements, or treating source statements that your attorney rep can supply the claimant for treating physicians to fill out. These will also be uploaded to the claimant’s file. An attorney will often submit a legal brief along with the medical records, in order to make it easier for the judge to follow the claimant’s argument for disability and grant a favorable decision. These briefs can be very helpful to a claim.
Judges have enormous latitude in their decision-making process for each and every case that appears in front of them. Each judge has a different method of conducting the hearing, a different way of looking at important evidence, and a different personality. Judges also have very different percentages in relation to cases they approve versus cases they deny. There is a database available that keeps track of each judge’s overall approval and denial rate. Some judges award close to 10% of their cases on the low end of the spectrum, while some judges award around 60% of the claims they hear. This isn’t the whole story, though. Many ALJs have specific evidence they want to see, or specific ways that they prefer cases to be presented to them. There is no substitute for an experienced attorney who has practiced in front of many judges, many times. Overall, the hearing judge is an extremely important and often final step in the process.