Pitfalls to Avoid at Your Social Security Disability Hearing

Here are some tips on what to say and what not to say at a Social Security disability hearing.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law
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A Social Security disability hearing can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially for those unfamiliar with the process and those unrepresented by an attorney. Depending on the administrative law judge (ALJ), a hearing can be contentious and adversarial or relatively laid-back and easygoing. While you can always hope for the latter, it's best to prepare for the former. No matter the judge, your chances of success will definitely increase if you avoid these common pitfalls at your hearing.

Exaggerating or Minimizing Your Symptoms

Occasionally disability claimants (applicants) are tempted to exaggerate their medical problems at their hearing. This is a huge mistake. Losing credibility with the judge is the quickest way to torpedo an otherwise valid claim. Here's an example of the kind of exchange that will raise red flags with an ALJ:

ALJ: Sir, tell me how often your back causes you pain.

Claimant: All the time. It hurts 24 hours a day.

ALJ: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your pain?

Claimant: It's a 10.

ALJ: It's a 10 all the time? Is there anything you can do to decrease the pain, like relaxing in a recliner, lying down, or maybe taking a warm bath?

Claimant: No, nothing makes it better. I've tried everything and nothing helps at all.

At this point, the ALJ is likely thinking that the claimant isn't being completely honest. Most back pain is improved, at least temporarily, with lying down, soaking in a tub, taking medication, or some other measure, and "10 out of 10" pain usually requires a trip to the hospital. The claimant in this situation, even if his pain is quite severe, is not doing himself any favors by claiming to experience "10 out of 10" back pain every minute of the day.

At the same time, a disability hearing is not a job interview. You're at the hearing to talk about the day-to-day limitations that prevent you from working, so don't minimize your symptoms. Often people fear that the ALJ will think they're whining or complaining, but this worry is misguided. No matter what problems you're experiencing—ifyour back pain prevents you from doing housework, your anxiety keeps you from leaving the house—you must tell the ALJ. If you don't, the judge will assume that you aren't having any problems and are capable of working.

Making Statements That Can Hurt Your Case

If the ALJ asks you a question directly, you absolutely must answer it honestly. But your duty to tell the truth does not require you to bring up information unsolicited that might be harmful to your case. Here are a couple general areas or statements to avoid unless you are specifically questioned about them.

  • You have family members who are receiving disability or unemployment benefits.
  • You have a criminal history.
  • You have problems with drugs or alcohol.
  • You haven't followed your doctor's orders or treatment plans.
  • You live in a town where no employers are hiring, and
  • You can't get to work because you don't have a car.

Again, and this cannot be stressed enough, if the ALJ asks whether, for example, your spouse is on disability benefits, you must answer honestly. You just don't need to offer the information if you're not asked about it.

Another instance: if you volunteer that "no one's hiring where you live," the judge might think that you believe you could work if only jobs were available. Here are some other points you should avoid bringing up at a disability hearing.

Giving the Judge Vague Answers

At the hearing, the ALJ is likely to inquire as to the frequency, intensity, and duration of your symptoms. Vague answers to these questions are a pet peeve of many ALJs. If, for example, you suffer from migraine headaches, don't say, "I get a lot of migraines, and they hurt really badly." Instead, try to quantify your symptoms to the extent possible: "I get a migraine headache about four to five days a week, and they usually last from four to as much as twelve hours." Try to describe your pain in detail with descriptive words like "burning," "shooting," "aching," or "throbbing," rather than simply stating that something hurts.

Also, be sure to use examples from your daily life that illustrate your functional limitations. Think back to specific instances where your medical issues have caused you problems. Did you miss the most recent Thanksgiving with your family because of depression or anxiety? Have you dropped dishes and broken them due to arthritis in your hands? Are you unable to pick up your young child because of back pain? The ALJ is much more likely to be persuaded with specific answers and concrete examples than vague assertions.

Going It Alone

Finally, the biggest mistake disability claimants make is to try to navigate the system alone. An experienced disability attorney can prepare you for your hearing and greatly increase your chances of being approved.

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