Learn about telephone hearings for Social Security Disability Claims from Christine Burnside, Social Security Disability Attorney at Deuterman Law Group.
Why Telephone Hearings?
Hello, my name is Christine, and I’m a Social Security Disability attorney with the Deuterman Law Group. I want to talk to you today about telephone hearings. Since we’re in a pandemic, we cannot go in person to a hearing and honestly, we don’t know when we’re going to be able to go back in person. We hope it’ll be sometime soon in 2022, but at this point, telephone hearings and video hearings are the options unless you want to wait for an in-person. So, today, I do want to talk about telephone hearings, and telephone hearings are what they sound like. You’re on a call; it does not have any video, the judge can’t see you, you can’t see the judge. Now this has been the only option for most of the last 16 months or so. Again, there are video hearings that are kind of up-and-coming, and those use Microsoft Teams, which is a software that’s similar to Zoom but is obviously owned by Microsoft. It’s taken a while for Social Security to figure out how to get that all sorted out so that’s a newer option, but since March of 2020, your only option if you wanted to move forward with your hearing and not wait for an untold amount of time was a phone hearing. So, we’ve been doing these since last March and honestly, I do think they go very well. I can’t speak to jurisdictions all over the country; I can only speak to the hearings for the parts of North Carolina where I practice, but so far, I think that these hearings have been really great. I think the judges do the very best they can to make the best decisions. There’s not a lot of difference in how the hearings are run other than you’re in your home, the judge is in their home. For a lot of the past since March of 2020, I was also in my home. Now, I’m back in my office, which is nice for me, and we’re all in different places, so it’s a four-way phone call. The judge can’t see you. Again, but you are in your home, so I guess it’s nice that you don’t have to worry about what you look like. You don’t have to tidy, and the judge does do their best to listen and to take into account what is going on.
Preparing for a telephone hearing
So, let me tell you a little bit about what the hearing will be like. The first thing is who calls you. Even if you have an attorney, the hearing office is going to be the party that starts the call, so it’s really important that you make sure that any spam blockers that send calls directly to voicemail without giving you the option of answering are turned off. That was only a problem at the very beginning of the pandemic before we realized that that was a thing that clients had on their phones. We never missed a full hearing, but there was some scrambling to try and get the client on the phone, so now we make sure to tell everyone as long as you can receive the call you’ll do fine. It’s only when the calls are sent straight to voicemail if it’s not in your contact list that it’s a problem because the hearing office is not going to be in your contact list. So make sure that that’s turned off and also make sure that you answer any number that calls you. That might sound silly, but if you’re expecting the call to come from a “336” number and then a Maryland number or a South Carolina number answers it could be easy to send it to voicemail.
The role of the hearing officer
The hearing officers are the people who help run the hearings. They’re very important. They make sure that all the parties get connected; they run the software; they record the hearings and so, those hearing reporters work in hearing offices all over the United States. So, one may be helping a judge in Greensboro, but actually might be in Maryland, so answer any number that calls that day. Of course you’ll have the date and time of your hearing, and the last note about answering the phone is the phone might not ring right at the time that the hearing is supposed to start. If you’re hearing is supposed to start at 10 o’clock, that might be the second or even third hearing that the judge has had that day, and if each hearing runs five minutes behind, then you might have the call coming in at 10:10 or 10:15. It’s not unheard of that a call comes in even an hour late, especially if there’s technology issues. So just know that the call will come as long as the hearing office has your phone number. They will call you. It’s a lot less nerve-wracking to wait for your hearing when you’re in the hearing office and you know that you’ll hear your name called than to be at home and wonder, “Gosh is my phone working, did they call me, did they have the wrong number, did I miss it?” It could be really stressful, but just know the call will come, and if you’re represented, your attorney is not going to let you miss that call. So, know that it might be a few minutes late, but it’ll come. After that, the hearing officer will, when you pick up, they’ll say: “Hey, this is so-and-so from the hearing office. Are you ready to start your hearing?” If you need a minute, if you need to get to the place where you want to have your hearing, if you want to sit in a different chair, just tell them, “I need just a second,” and then, when you’re ready, say “Yes I’m ready to start the hearing.” They’ll wait for you within reason, of course. Once you’re ready and you say “yes,” then the judge will come on the line if you are represented, your judge, your attorney will already be on the line so typically what happens is the hearing office will go ahead and call the vocational expert, and if you don’t know what that is I’ll have another video about that another day. And then they’ll call your attorney and then they’ll call you.
Once the judge is on the line
Now sometimes the judge will already be on the line and sometimes they’ll call the judge after you’re connected. It depends on what the judge prefers once all the parties are connected. Then a judge will say, “Let’s go on the record,” and that means that the hearing is being recorded. Now, all of the hearings are recorded. That is not special for hearings that are by phone. It is your right as a claimant to appeal if you’re denied a hearing and because it’s your right to appeal a recording has to be made of the hearing, however it’s important to note that only the judge has the right to record the hearing and so some judges, most judges I think, will actually confirm that you are not recording the hearing and that no other parties are recording the hearing. So, after that, the judge will confirm that you are who you say you are, ask you some background information, maybe your place of birth, mother’s maiden name, just to make sure that since they can’t see you and they can’t check your license as you come into the building that you are the correct person for the hearing. After that they’re going to confirm that you are ready and willing to move forward with a phone hearing. Again, it is your right to wait for an in-person hearing, but it’s just not possible for a lot of people to wait an untold amount of time until we can be back in-person, and so they’ll just confirm that you understand it is your right to wait and you are okay going forward with a phone hearing. At that point you just say, “Yes,” as long as you’re okay going forward with that. If you have any questions, hopefully you will have talked to your attorney about it ahead of time. If you’re unrepresented, stop and ask the judge, but if you’re at that point, I think probably you have already thought about it and made that choice. After that, the judge is just going to explain a little bit about how the hearing runs.
The opening statement
Again, if you’re represented, they will stop and talk to your attorney. They’re going to make sure that all of the medical evidence that was expected to be in the file is in the file, and some judges will ask your attorney to make what’s called an opening statement or talk about their theory for allowance, which is basically — it’s not like “Law and Order” or “Matlock” where you give 20 minutes and it’s very moving on why you should be approved — it’s just 30 seconds to a few minutes. If there’s a lot of issues, discussion on the highlights of the case, the reasons the most important medical evidence and a brief statement on why you should be found disabled according to the law, some judges won’t ask the attorney to say that and a lot of the attorneys will have already done it in writing ahead of time hopefully, and so, you may not hear that even if you are represented. But if that’s going to happen that happens at that point, and then the judge will talk to you and again, the vocational expert who’s also there by phone and will have you take an oath — you do have to be sworn in to tell the truth — you don’t have to go find a Bible or anything, but you just raise your right hand wherever you are and the judge will say, “Do you swear to tell the truth under threat of perjury?” You should say, “Yes” or “I do,” and then, at that point, it depends on the judge.
The hearing gets under way
Some judges will tell your attorney to start asking you questions. Your attorney will have questions prepared that they will have gone over with you, probably ahead of time or at least highlighted with you the things you’re going to talk about at the hearing, and those questions that the attorney will ask are really the same questions that the judge would ask but some judges like the attorney just to be the ones that do the questioning, and they want to listen. Some judges, at that point, will go ahead and just jump into asking you questions. Now, no matter who asks the questions, your attorney or the judge, they are really going to ask about the same questions. So, to me, I don’t really care who asked the questions. It doesn’t matter to me either way. I know all the evidence that needs to get out is going to get out, so if the judge asks the questions, at that point I’m going to put myself on mute, and that means that you won’t hear from me; the background noise in my office or home will not interfere, and I’m just going to be typing what everyone is saying so that I can take notes so that when it’s my turn to ask questions I can follow up on all the important things – things that either the judge seems confused about or things that I know we didn’t talk about in enough detail or maybe we didn’t talk about at all that are important. Likewise, if the judge wants me to ask questions at that point, the judge is probably going to mute themselves and we won’t hear again from the judge unless there’s an issue. And the issue would probably be like, “Can you speak up,” or the judge wants more information. They don’t want to wait, and they want to ask at that point and then after I’m done asking questions then I would let the judge know that I’ve finished and then the judge will ask any follow-up questions.
The vocational expert comes on the line
Once the judge and I have asked all the questions that we think are important for you to tell your story on why you’re unable to work and all the important things that have changed in your life because of your medical conditions, then we’re going to talk to the vocational expert and again, I’m not going to spend a lot of time today on that. I’m going to skip that. You’ll hear about that another day, but the vocational expert will testify for a few minutes during that point. You’re not expected to talk, and then the hearing will be over. After that, the judge will say, “Thank you. You can all disconnect.”
What happens next
You’re not going to know what happened. It’s too bad, but the judges don’t make the decisions in the hearing. The decision will come probably — I don’t even want to put an estimate in this video because it changes so often — but months after the hearing the decision will come in writing. So, you will probably be like, “Oh,” and it’s done, but your attorney or at least, we do call after the hearing and we’ll let you know how we think it went. If the judge gave us any indication on what they’re going to do, we’ll share it at that time. My favorite days are when I get to call and say, “Hey, you won your hearing,” and the client is often just taken aback because things are very subtle in the hearing sometimes, and it’s hard to know, and so, those are my favorite calls. But we’ll call after the hearing and say, “Hey, did you have any questions? This is how I think it went.” And then we keep in touch and then in a few months, hopefully we get to call and give you the good news. The last thing about the hearing is that in the phone hearing, sometimes you get disconnected, that can be very stressful but the only thing you have to do is just wait. They will call you back. It might take five minutes or even 10 minutes before the hearing officer is able to connect to your line again to call you. Again, I’ve had it take an hour and that was a day where the internet went out wherever the hearing reporter was, so don’t panic. Know that we cannot have a hearing without you, and if you got disconnected we will call you back. And try to keep your line open. I know it’s hard not to call your attorney or to try to find a phone number to call the hearing office. You can’t call the hearing office. The people that are in-person these are not the same people that are working your hearing and they’re not going to know, but just sit tight and you will get connected again. I think that’s the hardest thing when that happens. Even as I’m telling you this and I still feel really flustered when that happens and I sit and bite my fingernails. Will they call me back? They will. I should take my own advice.
Wrapping it up
I think that’s everything I wanted to tell you today about the phone hearing. Know the judge won’t be able to see you but I do think again that the judges where I am they do such a good job in really trying to get a good understanding of your case from the things you’ve said. And honestly, these cases I’m going to say this, they’re so important that you just talk to your doctor, because even if you were in-person and the judge can see that you’re using a cane that day, if your doctor has never noted that you need to use a cane the judge cannot trust their eyes over your medical records. So for that reason, honestly these phone hearings I think they’ve done a really great job trying to make them as good a substitute to an in-person hearing as possible if you have a condition or symptoms from a condition. The most important thing you can do to let the judge know about it is tell your doctor. So, that’s it for today. I’ll be back another day. Again, my name is Christine, and I hope you call if you have any questions. Thanks so much. Take care.