In an effort to reduce the heavy rush of people at the SSA's offices during the Covid-19, the SSA has introduced lots of new facilities online for you to benefit from. This includes being able to file for Social Security disability online, check your application status, check whether you have any upcoming payments, hearings etc
In response to the task force during the Covid-19 lockdown, the Social Security Administration has also introduced a program of disability appeal hearings via video teleconferencing, VTC. This is done for various reasons such as providing safety during the lockdowns while also enabling people to carry out their appeals at the specified times without unnecessary delays.
During a disability hearing via video conferencing, you as a disability claimant and your representatives (disability attorneys or disability lawyers) appear at a specified Social Security Office or any other location specified by the responsible authorities, while your assigned Administrative Law Judge, ALJ will appear remotely on the video.
While video hearings can be made possible on request, they are mostly scheduled for people who live far away from the SSA offices of Hearing Operations (OHO). *The Office of Hearing Operations are where most cases are heard in-person. In addition, video teleconferencing for disability appeals hearing are also made available for people whose cases have been transferred to the National Hearing Center (NHC). **The National Hearing Center is also one of the SSA's initiative to become more efficient in the disability appeals hearing process.
Benefits of Video Hearings
From a claimant's point-of-view, video hearings offer a range of benefits including reduced or very low travel costs, more time efficient and effective. Also, most video hearing locations assigned to the claimants are very near to their accommodations and are scheduled more quickly than an in-person hearing at the SSA field office. Whereas from the SSA's point-of-view, the video hearings prove more efficient not only in terms of cost and time but also in terms of security during the pandemic. Also, since the SSA has reduced in-house staff during the lockdown, the video hearings allow them to keep the work going on as scheduled without unnecessary delays for the claimants.
However, a few claimants may still want to opt for an in-person hearing instead of a video hearing. This may be due to various reasons such as they feel more comfortable talking physically in presence of an ALJ, or their attorneys asked them to. Whatever the reasons for choosing out on a video hearing, the SSA laws allow you to choose whichever type you prefer. Yet, there maybe a few pros and cons for each.
Pros and Cons of Video Hearings vs In-person Hearings
Here are a few things to consider before opting between an in-person hearing or a video teleconferencing, VTC:
- - An in-person hearing has a 3% more chance of winning SSDI
Recent federal government statistics have shown that an in-person hearing has a 3% more chance of winning a disability hearing. This is because it is more easier for an Administrative Law Judge to assess your credibility in-person rather than through video conferencing. For instance, an ALJ may not notice you walking limply while entering the video conferencing room, the pain while you sit through the VTC process, the fact that you needed help with your wheelchair, scars, lesions or any other deformities.
Another credibility issue in a VTC is the seemingly okay symptoms that are difficult or almost impossible to notice in a video such as MRI or CT Scan showing the fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome or especially if you have seemingly unnoticeable mental or physical impairments.
- - A VTC may have inevitable technical difficulties
Although video conferencing has improved over time with advancing technological abilities, we still lack behind when it comes to smooth and interruption free high-quality video teleconferencing for professional purposes. An ALJ will have difficulty analyzing your case if they are unable to see the medical documents presented in the video properly, or face audio/video disruptions, blurry displays or outright power outages.
Another such example is if all this happens while you medical examiner, physician or employer is testifying to your disability. So, it you think this could happen you should better request an in-person hearing for a more smooth hearing process.
- - Refusing a VTC may delay your hearing to a far away date
While the SSA grants disability claimants an absolute right to an in-person hearing and while the SSA will try to schedule the in-person hearing as soon as possible, you could still expect a delay due to the reduced in-person staff and limited availability of field offices during the lockdown. This means that even if you can opt for an in-person hearing you can expect lengthy delays from one hearing process to another. The timeframe for the delay for an in-person hearing can vary anywhere between three weeks to four or even six months.
So, the best case forward is if you receive your hearing notice especially for a video teleconference, you should try to act as quick as possible and opt for an in-person hearing as soon as you get the notice. In most cases, the notice will contain the following or similar sentence: 'I Plan to Use Video Teleconferencing at Hearing'.
- - An in-person disability hearing more than 75 miles is covered by SSA
Many people are unaware of the fact that if you choose to opt for an in-person hearing you are only required to cover a specific portion of the travel costs to and fro from the disability hearing location. So, do not completely change your disability hearing type simply because you are unable to travel that long distances. In fact, if your disability hearings location requires you to travel more than 75 miles (one way) you become automatically eligible to file for a mileage reimbursement for your travel. Your Social Security officer will require you to file for a mileage reimbursement form after which your reimbursement check may arrive several weeks later to your mail box.
- - The ALJ remains the same in both disability hearings processes
The SSA always discourages twisting of the facts or trying to work around the rules. It is for this reason that the SSA has made it a ruleto assign the same ALJ whether you opt for a VTC or an in-person hearing. This way, claimants are discouraged to go for 'judge shopping' to increase their chances of winning appeals process by seeking the most favourable judge for your case.
Although the SSA will try to reduce judge discrimination as much as possible, it may still happen sometimes due to several inevitable facts. For example, you maybe assigned a different ALJ for an in-person hearing after you changed preferences from a VTC simply because the previously assigned ALJ lives across the country and is farther away from your local OHO office.
Yet, a change in your ALJ can also impact your whole appeals process as it can wither work in your favor or prove a detriment to your case. It is better that you discuss your case with a professional disability attorney to decide the best case forward.
If your disability attorney believes that you have enough medical and employer evidence plus the required testimonies then you should opt for the convenience of a Video Teleconferencing, VTC. However, if your evidence is insufficient or simple unseeable through video then go for an in-person hearing.