At our office, we typically meet with individuals after their disability has been denied by the government. We will usually set up an initial appointment in order to go over all of the pertinent information regarding the individual’s claim. As an attorney, my starting point is looking at the denial. This gives me information as to the basis of the government’s denial of the claim and it tells me whether the only issue is disability, or whether there are other issues such as eligibility for benefits. In the initial interview, I like to find out the names of all of the treating doctors and hospitals and I can then compare the decision that was made by the government in order to see whether they have obtained all of the records, or whether there may be important missing records.
By the end of the initial interview, I have made a determination as to whether the case is winnable and what the appropriate strategy is going to be. We will then file our Request for Hearing, along with some other forms which are required by the Social Security Administration. We additionally take a look at whether other records need to be requested and we attempt to obtain a copy of the Social Security Disability file which is now on a computer disk.
Eventually, the case will be set for a hearing. There is usually between 30-90 days notice and we like to set up another appointment in the office in order to go over all of the questions that are likely to be asked and to further plan strategy.
In some cases, we will find individuals who, because of their financial circumstances, have not been seeing any doctors regularly. We may recommend medical services through a facility that treats low-income individuals. This may help to provide us with further evidence of the individual’s disability. As a lawyer, when I prepare an individual for their hearing, I need to make sure that their testimony is consistent with every form that they have ever signed, questionnaire they have filled out, and every statement that they have made to a doctor. Sometimes there will be statements that appear on the surface to be contradictory, but really aren’t. For example, I recall one client who said that he would walk 45 minutes at the mall for exercise. However, upon further questioning, he did so by breaking up his walk into 10 minute segments and was normally out of breath and in pain by the time he finished. He was determined to try to do his best to get some exercise, but he suffered greatly. It is important to get your arms around these apparently contradictory statements which simply need to be further explained.
Finally the big day comes when the case is set for hearing. There are two main offices in the St. Louis area. One is located in Creve Coeur and the other office is in downtown St. Louis. You will be assigned a judge and each judge has their own record and reputation in terms their approval rates. Each judge also has a different style in terms of the approach that they may take under differing circumstances. A lawyer who is familiar with the reputations of the various judges will have a better chance of knowing how to present your case.
Some judges will take control of the hearing by starting out with questions that they want to have answered first. Other judges will allow the attorney to approach the case based on the format that he or she has set up with his client. Still other judges will let the attorney lead off with the questions, but will frequently interrupt with questions of their own. As an attorney, I prepare differently based upon which type of judge I am going to encounter.
The determination as to which judge is assigned to your case will not be determined until you receive your hearing notice. Sometimes a judge may be ill or other circumstances may occur which cause a last minute reassignment. As an attorney, it is important to be able to quickly readapt.
During the course of the hearing, a Hearing Assistant will be recording everything that is said on a tape recorder. Just like anywhere else, judges vary in friendliness, temperment, attention to detail, and their desire to take in testimony. As an attorney, I find that it is important to recognize that the judge’s time is important. Being prepared helps the judge because it results in efficiently presenting sharp, crisp, clean testimony. Unprepared testimony often sounds rambling and unfocused and it is difficult for a judge to get his or her arms around testimony which is undefined and sloppy. Expect that the judge will most likely want to hear all of the testimony within a 30 to 40 minute period. If time allows, there may be room for some additional elaboration and some hearing may last for about an hour and a half. Your attorney should be able to explain to you what the basic strategy is with respect to trying to win your claim. A judge does not want to hear everything about you, but only what is important. Minor “problems” such as broken toes and fingers, or, for example, frequent nasal congestion, should be left out in order to make time for things that matter.
Most judges will not say how they are going to rule at the end of the hearing. There are occasions when a judge may seem negative, but will ultimately rule in your favor. There may be other cases where the judge seemed friendly, but didn’t think that your claim warranted approval. There are also some instances in which a judge will take time at the end of the hearing to tell the claimant that he is going to approve the claimant’s case. This is done in order to alleviate anxiety on the part of the claimant. There are also cases where the judge may be on the fence and wants to thoroughly review all of the evidence and exhibits before making a final determination.
Whenever a judge finally rules on your case, there will be a decision in writing that will be mailed to you and your attorney. The decision can either be fully favorable, partially favorable, or it could be a denial. A partially favorable decision often occurs in cases where the judge finds that there may be a long period of disability, but ultimately believes that the claimant recovered and is capable of working. Whenever you get your decision, you should contact your attorney in order to make sure that you understand the judge’s ruling.
Submitted by: Jeff Swaney
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