As a Social Security disability lawyer practicing for 30 years, I’m used to speaking with those seriously disabled from long-term illnesses or injuries: in some cases, wondering if they will survive long enough for benefits to be awarded. Learning of my clients’ severe medical conditions over the years of my practice has only heightened my own sense of how fragile life truly is. The sense of dread as to what was to come with COVID-19 was obvious early on for me, and my office was one of the early ones to work in a socially isolated fashion beginning early March, 2020. Fortunately, we were prepared for the electronic/cloud age for this to occur. That being said, the Federal Government was not.
As of March 17, 2020, the Social Security Administration suspended in person disability appeal hearings at their hearing office sites due to COVID-19: and this was late in the game compared to other courts. Since that time, disability hearings have only taken place if counsel and the disabled claimant agree to a telephone hearing: a process that took some weeks to put into order, and which process could not have been any more impersonal or disjointed upon its initiation. During my first hearing, it was the judge himself who happened to have connection issues during the hearing, causing the claimant and I to wonder whether we would be able to get through the remainder of the hearing with sufficient attention paid to her disabling issues versus the phone connections. Fortunately, my client was granted a favorable decision in her claim.
That being said, if not for my clients’ desperate need for money, I would not have advised her to proceed with the telephone hearing process and I have similarly advised all but one other of my clients to do the same: suggesting they put off their hearings until such time as we could both look the judge in the face: in person. That being said, there is a limit to how long one can afford to wait for in person hearings to resume. And, fortunately, the Social Security Administration began the work of developing a hearing process with Microsoft Office Teams which is finally being rolled out at the Portland, Maine Office of Hearing Operations as of March, 2021. Notices have now gone out providing claimants with the option to proceed from the comfort of their own home by way of Microsoft Office Teams Video conferencing. The hearing notice has provided a link (although one letter off) to the Social Security Appeal hearing video process, where one can find a youtube video that provides a visual guide to how the video hearing process will work along with a helpful user manual for what one will require in order to participate in a hearing by video: 1) access to email (so that the information regarding one’s particular hearing session can be received leading up to hearing), 2) a camera enabled device (which can be a laptop, tablet, smartphone or desktop) that can download and install the MS Teams Application and has a camera, microphone and speakers, and which can connect to a secure high speed or WIFI data connection and 3) a quiet private place where one can participate in the hearing without interruption and disruption.
Likewise, the SSA site has a test link whereby one can test their device ahead of time to ensure it will interact correctly with the Microsoft Office Teams video service. It is important to note that without a smart phone at a minimum (a simple data cell phone will not suffice) and a high speed connection to the internet that is reliable is going to be necessary in order to take advantage of this new process. The other consideration is that the same sense of being in person and looking the judge in the eye will be lost. The judge’s inability to see the nuanced movements and facial reactions on one’s face may be lost. And in some cases, this may translate to a lack of personal connection between the judge and the claimant and vice-versa. How seamlessly the connection will work and how clear and continuous the audio will turn out to be remains to be seen until the day and time of the hearing. Needless to say, it’s a far cry better than a telephone hearing, but a far cry from ideal. And we are all left to wonder how many more months beyond March of 2021 it may be before an in person hearing can once again take place.
If you or someone you care for is long-term disabled and coming up on a hearing, have them contact our office (the Law Offices of Russell J. Goldsmith) at 1-800-773-8622 so we can discuss with them how we can help prepare them for their upcoming hearing.