Heermans Social Security Law Firm is pleased to share some good news – almost two years to the day after they closed, over 1,200 Social Security Administration field offices will once again be open for business.
Since offices closed, employees have handled most tasks virtually, by mail, or by telephone. But other work was pushed to the backburner. The SSA had originally planned to open on January 3, but disagreements with the worker’s union delayed the reopening date by more than two months. Generally, everyone is happy with the new agreement, which requires everyone, whether they are vaccinated or not, to mask up. “This agreement is only the first step, but we now have a path forward to begin reopening SSA offices and worksites in a manner that protects both the health and safety of employees and the public we serve,” remarked American Federation of Government Employees negotiator Rich Couture.
Roughly 70 million Americans receive monthly Social Security benefits. A significant number of these individuals are disabled.
Live v. Virtual Interactions
Reopening Social Security offices impacts employees, applicants, and Heermans disability lawyers near you. Some of these impacts may positively impact disability applications, and some may not.
As mentioned in the above article, Social Security employees will be returning to work in their office setting. That includes Disability Determination Services officers and administrative law judges. Like all other employees returning to their offices, there will be a period of adjustment both personally and professionally. A poor attitude could affect the way these individuals evaluate the evidence and/or issues in a disability claim. However, these individuals are professionals, so this effect will probably be negligible.
The effect could be more pronounced among clerks, coordinators, and other support personnel. If the cogs in the machine aren’t working right, the machine’s performance could suffer. Disability applicants need to be patient as new and refreshed systems are set in place and/or improved upon as offices open up.
Reopening generally benefits Social Security Disability applicants. DDS officers and other employees cannot see the full effect of many disabilities on a laptop’s screen. They cannot see applicants struggle to get around or have trouble standing or sitting. True, the medical evidence usually documents these things. But reading about it and seeing it are two different things. Furthermore, because of coronavirus shutdowns, the best evidence in these cases has often been unavailable for the last two years. More on that below.
Like a DDS officer or an administrative law judge, a Social Security Disability lawyer is a professional. Nevertheless, there is a difference between a virtual hearing or meeting and a live meeting or hearing. The focus is sharper and the energy level is higher when live bodies are together in a room.
Reopening and Evidence-Gathering
Shutting down Social Security offices during the worst of the pandemic was probably the right thing to do as it is best to adhere to the CDC. All applicants are either vulnerable to infection because of age or they have pre-existing medical conditions. Going to a gathering of strangers, whether they are masked up and vaccinated or not, was simply too dangerous.
Now, the worst appears to be over. Additionally, if the SSA was waiting for coronavirus to disappear before it reopened, it looks like that might never happen. So, with the weather starting to get a little warmer and the sunshine starting to get a little brighter, now is as good a time as any to reopen.
Moreover, SSA reopening could be the “all clear” signal for hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare entities to reopen fully. Once that happens, your Heermans Social Security Disability attorney serving the Memphis Metro Area, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana will have an easier time collecting evidence in these cases. Many medical facilities were either closed or working with skeleton onsite staffs. So, obtaining evidence, especially archived medical reports, was difficult.
Usually, evidence in a disability claim includes more than medical proof. The d-word also has economic, vocational, educational, and other implications. Amputations are a good illustration. These injuries are usually disabling for blue-collar workers, but if the applicant is a white-collar professional, disability is harder to prove.
We mentioned some benefits of live DDS hearings above. Additionally, it’s usually easier for DDS officers to consider evidence in live hearings. This ability is critical, because for the most part, DDS reviews are only paper reviews.
Frequently, older medical records are not digital. The imaging process is usually, but not always, reliable. Additionally, there is a visceral difference between holding paper in your hand and looking at a screen. The burden of proof at these hearings, as discussed below, is quite low. So, the evidence could go either way, in many cases. Any advantage, however slight, could be the difference between disability benefits and a categorical denial.
Virtual DDS hearings also have logistical issues. It’s difficult to get everything on the same screen at the same time. The more time a disability attorney spends dealing with or overseeing logistical issues, the less time an attorney has to prepare a case.
The burden of proof in a Social Security Disability claim is whether or not the claimant can work a full time job, within the rules that are part of the analysis.. Imagine two identical stacks of typing paper are side by side. If someone moves a single sheet from the left to the right, the stack on the right is higher than the one on the left. That’s a picture of a preponderance of the evidence.
The burden of proof is often an issue regarding medical evidence. If the SSA is determined to deny the disability claim, the file usually contains a medical report disputing the nature and/or extent of the disability. It’s difficult to assess such evidence virtually.
Administrative Law Reviews
SSA reopening probably has the largest impact on administrative law reviews. Let’s face it. Lawyers, including ALJs, are accustomed to live interaction. The more comfortable ALJs are, the more likely they are to do their jobs properly and efficiently.
This job includes more than assessing paper evidence, which is what DDS officers do. ALJs usually hear from live witnesses as well. It’s much easier to assess witness credibility when the person testifying is in the same room. That’s especially true since everyone does not have a 100 percent reliable internet connection or a good visual camera for live stream video.
Furthermore, ALJs consider legal arguments. Any lawyer, teacher, or other presenting professional will say that it’s easier to make logical arguments when one can move around the room. That’s simply the way we are wired.
SSA lawyers know that applicants have a much better chance of winning a live ALJ hearing than a virtual ALJ hearing. So, they are usually willing to settle these matters out of court. These resolutions end cases sooner and give applicants and their lawyers more control over the outcome.
To get your disability claim started on the right foot, contact the Heermans Social Security Disability Law Firm for a FREE disability evaluation. More value added FREE information can be found in our online article library. Call or text 24/7 at (901) 244-0057.
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