COVID-19 has changed how we approach many everyday tasks, and Social Security disability hearings are no exception.
Infections have soared in recent months, with an estimated 10.5 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of mid-November, 2020. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention found that those with certain types of disabilities or chronic medical conditions are more prone to higher risk of infection or severe disease.
According to the CDC, some of these conditions include people with:
- Chronic lung disease.
- A serious heart condition.
- A weakened immune system.
- Limited mobility and who come into close contact with caregivers.
- Difficulty understanding how to adhere to measures such as hand washing or social distancing.
- Difficulty communicating their symptoms.
Thus, it is crucial for those seeking disability benefits to understand the precautions Social Security Offices of Hearings & Operations (OHOs) are taking to ensure their wellbeing.
Though these procedural changes are meant for your health and safety, they can mean adjustments in how you approach your benefits case and, when necessary, prepare for hearings.
Hearings occur when the Social Security Administration (SSA) denies your benefits and you must appeal the decision. In Georgia, over 70% of claimants are initially denied benefits, including those applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs.
A qualified disability attorney can help you navigate your case and the changes to the process caused by COVID-19.
Here are some of the key changes to keep in mind about your Social Security hearing during COVID-19.
Is My Disability Hearing Office Closed Due to COVID-19?
In short, the answer is yes. The SSA has stated that, for the foreseeable future, hearing offices will remain closed.
Previously, in-person and video hearing options were available to Social Security claimants. However, at this time all hearings are being conducted by telephone.
What to Know about Telephone Hearings
To schedule a telephone hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), you will need to submit a Request for Hearing (SSA-501). If your benefits are denied after a reconsideration by the SSA, you must submit within 60 days. You must submit new evidence of your disability no later than 5 days prior to the hearing.
Once you submit your request, you will receive information about your hearing. You are not required to have a telephone hearing. However, it is unclear at this time when in-person hearings will resume.
You can call your local hearing office to confirm your availability for a hearing, update personal information, request a postponement, or get an update about an upcoming hearing.
You can also fax documents to hearing offices prior to your hearing.
The SSA has the following tips for preparing for your hearing:
- Be available to answer your phone on the day of your hearing.
- Find a quiet and private place to receive the phone call.
- A landline is preferable to a cell phone for call quality.
- Mute your phone when not testifying or speaking.
- Be prepared to be on a call with multiple parties: you, your legal representative, the ALJ, a hearing reporter, a vocational expert, a medical expert, and an interpreter if needed.
- Be prepared to give testimony under oath and ask any questions you have.
What to Know about Online Video Hearings
Sometime in the Fall of 2020, the SSA is expected to begin offering online video hearings for added convenience.
These will be conducted similarly to telephone, video, or in-person hearings, although some parties may join the hearing only by phone. A secure internet connection will be necessary for this option.
Online video hearings have not yet been rolled out as of the writing of this article.
What Happens After My Hearing?
Your hearing will lead to one of two outcomes: Either you will win your benefits, or you will need to seek the next level of appeal within 60 days of the hearing decision.
This is requesting a review of your hearing by the Appeals Council in Falls Church, Virginia. For this stage of appeal, you would submit your request in writing. The Council will make one of three decisions:
- Deny your right to a review (most cases are denied at this level).
- Reverse the decision and award you benefits.
- Assign you another ALJ for a new hearing.
You must file for a review of your hearing. A review by the Appeals Council does not require its own hearing and is essentially a procedural review of how the ALJ handled your case. You will need to have compelling evidence that the outcome of your hearing was in error.
If your request for a review is denied, your final option for appeal is to file a civil action in federal court. Each district court is following its own set of health safety guidelines for COVID-19 in conjunction with state mandates.
How Can a Disability Attorney Help with My Hearings and Appeals?
Even though hearings are not held in person at this time, a qualified attorney can still advocate on your behalf and maximize your chances of winning your benefits.
Local attorneys have working relationships with local court officials and insight into ALJs’ preferences in how they conduct hearings and review evidence.
Attorneys can help you prepare for your hearing and participate regardless of them being remote. At the Appeals Council stage, an attorney can be instrumental in properly laying out your written brief, which details the technical aspects of how your ALJ hearing’s decision was in error.
Most importantly, you typically don’t pay an up-front attorney’s fee for Social Security disability cases. Often, your attorney’s fee will be collected from a limited amount of your initial back pay when you win your claim. If you don’t win, you don’t pay a fee.
This allows you to consult an attorney from the very beginning of your case, so you are more likely to win your claim prior to the final stages of appeal.
If your SSDI or SSI claim has been denied, or you’re thinking about filing and don’t know where to start, Affleck and Gordon can help. We’ve been helping people in Georgia just like you for over 40 years. Sign up for a free case evaluation here, or call us (404) 795-4978.