First, a little history. Before 2003, the Social Security Administration (SSA) conducted hearings largely in person. For an in-person hearing, the Claimant and the attorney meet at the Office of Hearings Operations (hearings office) and appeared before a judge who was in the same room as the Claimant and the attorney. This was the preferred method of holding a disability hearing. In “extraordinary circumstances” phone hearings were permitted when the Claimant could not appear at the in-person hearing. These “extraordinary circumstances” were limited to Claimants who were incarcerated, institutionalized or something similar. In a few cases, “extraordinary circumstances” extended to circumstances which were the direct result of a Claimant’s impairments. (In my experience, cases which allowed an exception due to a Claimant’s impairment were few and far between.)
Then, in 2003, SSA, which was trying to find a solution to an enormous back log of cases waiting to be heard by judges, implemented disability hearings by video teleconferencing. At a video teleconferencing hearing (VTC hearing), the Claimant and his/her attorney meet at the hearing office closest to the Claimant’s residence. There, they sit in a room before a TV screen. The judge appears on the TV screen from a different hearing office. The OHO office where the judge is could be any where in the nation. (I have had judges preside over VTC hearings from Detroit, Chicago, Falls Church, Virginia, Albuquerque, New Mexico, California, and South Carolina.) SSA randomly selects which case is sent out to another office and also randomly selects which judge hears to case.
In 2014, SSA created a time sensitive procedure allowing the Claimant 30 days from the date of the video teleconferencing notice to object to a hearing conducting by video teleconferencing. If an objection is timely filed, the Claimant’s hearing will be set for a “live judge” hearing.
On March 17, 2020, SSA closed its hearing offices (as well as its field offices) to the public across the county due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, SSA employees continued to work (mostly remotely). Eventually, SSA decided to hear disability cases by offering Claimants a phone hearing (without showing “extraordinary circumstances”). The Claimants could decline the phone hearing. By the end of 2020, many Claimants opted not have cases heard by phone. So, SSA implemented a second alternative for a hearing, “Microsoft Teams Video” (similar to Zoom or FaceTime). With a Teams hearing, the Claimant can testify from home.
Around April 2022, with the COVID-19 pandemic in retreat, SSA began to reopen its field and hearing offices. Hearings are currently offered as 1.) live hearings, 2.) video teleconferencing hearings, 3.) phone and 4.) Teams video. The two types of hearings which involve going into the OHO hearing office are live judge hearings and VTC hearings. There are special rules for these types of hearings. First, the Claimant cannot be at the hearing office more than 15 minutes before the hearing, the Claimant must have completed an SSA COVID -19 screening document on-line within 24 hours before the hearing and the Claimant must wear a mask during the hearing. In the hearing room, there are Plexiglas dividers between the Claimant and the judge.
Because a live hearing and a video teleconferencing hearing are still the preferred methods for a disability hearing, SSA may schedule a live hearing or a video teleconferencing hearing even if the Claimant has agreed to a phone or Teams hearing.
There are also special rules for phone and Microsoft Teams Video hearings. For these hearings, the Claimant must be in a private room in his/her home, must be alone in that room and cannot record the hearing.
Many Claimants select a Microsoft Teams Video hearing rather than a phone or going into the hearing office. Claimants who do not have a camera or feel intimated with using technology will opt for the phone. While some Claimants still wish to appear before a live judge, most do not because they do not feel well enough to travel. Any of the four methods for a disability Social Security hearing allow for the Claimant’s story to be told to the judge and for the judge to use the 5 step sequential evaluation process to determine whether the Claimant is disabled.