Social Security Telephone Hearings During Pandemic

As many claimants awaiting hearings on their applications for disability benefits are aware, since mid-March, 2020, the only type of hearing being offered by the Social Security Administration is a telephonic hearing. Of course, claimants have a right to an “in-person” hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). These “in-person” hearings are important, and it is not at all the same presenting a Social Security claim before a judge in person as it is by doing it over the phone. As of now, when a claimant’s hearing is being scheduled by Social Security, the claimant must decide whether to agree to have a telephone hearing or wait until Social Security resumes normal operations and have an “in-person” hearing. So what is the right thing to do here?

There are many items to consider when deciding whether to accept a telephone hearing.   How long will I have to wait if I want an “in-person” hearing?  There is no definite answer to that question now.   Here in Georgia, cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, and no one knows when a vaccine for this virus may become available.  Other areas of the country have COVID-19 cases declining, but we do not know what benchmarks Social Security will use to decide when to resume “in-person” hearings, as Social Security is a national program. Many Social Security claimants are in extreme financial distress and months upon extra months to wait for a hearing is not a possibility.

The specific disability suffered by a claimant also can be a major factor in deciding whether to accept a telephonic hearing. Claimant’s with Meniere’s disease, tinnitus, deafness, or a similar condition would have a terrible time communicating in a telephonic hearing. Also, while all ALJs make determinations on how credibly a claimant testifies, some put more emphasis on that credibility determination in how it fits in with the other evidence of record when deciding whether to approve the claim for benefits. Generally speaking, it is easier to get a more accurate read on a claimant’s credibility when one can see that claimant rather than relying solely on a voice over the phone.

The choice on whether to accept a telephonic hearing is 100% the individual claimant’s choice.  As the attorney for the claimant, I am happy to give my input about whether the claimant should accept a telephonic hearing but, ultimately, the decision rests with the claimant. I have participated in quite a few telephonic hearing in the past few months and they have all gone fairly smoothly. We know that there will be only telephonic hearings through at least September, and I suspect we will not return to “in-person” hearing for many months after that. All claimants who are unsure whether to accept a telephonic hearing should talk to his or her lawyer if they have any questions on whether it is best to agree to a telephonic hearing or wait for an “in-person” hearing when they can be face to face with the judge that will decide their applications for benefits.

Christopher B Scott
Partner, Attorney at Law

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