Video Hearings: When To Object

By Pitt Dickey

The Social Security Administration (SSA) recently changed its procedure regarding the conduct of disability hearings. The SSA has begun to move from in person hearings before an Administrative Law Judge to video Skype type hearings where the Judge is in another state and observes the claimant locally on video. The hearing before the Judge is perhaps the most important part of the disability process. Unless the claimant exercises his rights to have an in person hearing within 30 days of receiving the new video hearing notice then the claimant will have waived his right to appear in person before a Judge.

To briefly summarize the disability process, a person who believes he can no longer work due to injury or illness files an application for disability with the SSA. Think of the process as climbing a ladder. In many instances the claimant is denied at the first two steps of the process - the initial decision and the reconsideration decision. The claim is assigned to a disability agent at the Disability Determination Section (DDS) in Raleigh. The DDS gathers the claimant's medical records and makes an initial decision and reconsideration decision as to whether the claimant is disabled. If the claim is denied at the initial step then the claimant has 60 days to appeal to the second step - reconsideration. If the claim is denied at the reconsideration step, then the claimant has 60 days to appeal for a hearing before a Judge. The Judge is not bound by the earlier denials and will make a new and independent decision as to whether the claimant meets the disability test. This hearing is crucial to the claimant.

Until September 2014, a claimant was entitled to have an in person hearing before the Judge unless the SSA sent him written notice that it was planning to hold a video hearing. This notice would typically not go out until the case was ready to be set for hearing. The claimant then could object and have an in person hearing before the Judge. Under the new procedure, the SSA is sending out notices to claimants as soon as they file a request for a hearing by a Judge that establishes a 30 day period to object to a video hearing. If the claimant does not object within 30 days, his right to a personal hearing is waived. For claimants who are not represented by counsel at the time they request their hearing, they may waive the right to a personal appearance without understanding what they are doing by failing to object to the video hearing.

I recommend to my clients that they object to video hearings as appearing personally before a Judge gives the Judge a much better grasp of the claimant's condition than just seeing a video of the claimant. In theory video hearings might come sooner than waiting for a personal appearance as the SSA has a National Hearing Office where Judge's do video hearings for the entire country. However, the loss of the human quality of appearing personally before a Judge in my opinion is not worth the impersonal nature of a Skype type hearing. Many people who are ultimately approved for disability do not get approved until they appear before a Judge. Please think carefully before waiving your right to a personal hearing.