Social Security Administrative Law Judges (“ALJs”) are judges who specialize in deciding Social Security disability claims. They conduct live hearings, take testimony, review medical records and other documents in your file, and make determinations on whether to grant or deny claims.
ALJs are chosen based on their qualifications, test scores, and an oral examination before a government panel. They are not hired for a specified period. Essentially, ALJs can keep working as judges as long as they want to. They do not undergo performance evaluations and they cannot receive bonuses or other incentives for their work. As a result, ALJs are very independent. They are not pressured by the Social Security Administration to award or deny cases. Some ALJs award the great majority of their cases while others award only a small percentage. The majority of ALJs fall somewhere in the middle.
ALJs also differ widely in the way they conduct their disability hearings and make their decisions. In hearings some ALJs will ask very few questions of the claimant while others will ask many questions. Some ALJs will ask aggressive questions, making the claimant feel the ALJ is against them. Others are very friendly, but how the ALJ behaves in the hearing might have no relation to whether they will award or deny the case.
Federal regulations, Social Security Rulings, and the ALJs’ handbook give specific instructions to the ALJs on how to perform their duties. ALJs sometimes depart from these guidelines. Sometimes they do this intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. The independence that Social Security gives its ALJs means that each one does their job differently. Your disability attorney should inform you about the specific ALJ who will conduct your hearing.
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