When I worked my first hearing as a Social Security Disability (SSD) representative rather than an Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) adjudicator, it felt like going home. Yet, being on the other side of the proverbial gavel provided a different perspective. Working as an SSD representative requires a different skillset when arguing a case versus deciding on a disability claim or writing a decision. Fortunately, my previous experience as a disability adjudicator involved adjudicating disability cases and writing Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) decisions—which gave me an advantage as an SSD representative.
In my most recent case, I thoroughly researched the disability claims case and knew exactly what the ALJ would be looking for. In this particular disability case, the client was a teenager; I knew it would be beneficial to mention my work as a former high school teacher to show my credibility. I must admit, it was fun making strong arguments, questioning the witness, and interacting with the Office of Hearings Operations staff compared to previous years of sitting behind a desk all day. When I think back to those days as a Social Security Disability Adjudicator, I knew my skill set could be better used on the other side as a Social Security representative—and now that idea has come to fruition!
It’s not surprising that after my first case working on the other side I immediately began considering a few things I can do differently. For instance, I decided to focus on other facts when I review disability cases and draft my prehearing briefs differently. Moreover, my mindset and process have changed from that of an SSD adjudicator and decision writer to a Social Security Disability representative.
Now, I highlight supporting evidence in disability claims and focus on adverse evidence that I know the Administrative Law Judge will question. Previously, I was inclined to brush over adverse evidence, or not mention it all, hoping the ALJ might be too busy to look over it. This isn’t likely, though. Fortunately, I understand how an SSD adjudicator’s mindset works, so I know what is likely to happen: The ALJ will read or hear strong evidence supporting the finding of a disability, but there will be a piece of adverse evidence that causes them to take pause. The Social Security Disability adjudicator may be ready to allow the claim—until there is an opinion showing “significant improvement”, recent work, or notes discussing how the disability claimant is doing great. This adverse evidence doesn’t necessarily mean the claimant is not disabled when taken in the context of the evidence as a whole. Thus, I use strong evidence that supports the finding of a disability to counter the adverse evidence. In this way, every piece of evidence can be used, but in a different way.
In my first hearing as a Social Security Disability representative, I addressed adverse evidence, but not fully. When questioning the witness, I admit a tendency to briefly and quickly address the adverse evidence, without going in depth. After the hearing, I was sure the ALJ was questioning this evidence—and I hadn’t given myself the opportunity to provide a full counter-argument. While I knew I could provide a post-hearing brief, the chances were the Administrative Law Judge was already in the final stages of making his decision; ALJs work under a production-paced work environment too, and they need to move on to their next cases. It’s my responsibility to make the best use of the hearing and the evidence.
My mindset has changed since that case, employing a more focused, targeted thinking process. It’s is a hybrid between SSD adjudication and SSD representation—a perfect approach to handling Social Security Disability cases. Check out what I won't change here!