Due to the circumstances of COVID-19 the Social Security Administration has taken extraordinary measures to ensure that business is moving forward as smoothly as possible.
The Social Security Administration closed its offices to the public back in the spring of 2020. At the time the vast majority of hearings were being held in person at the Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) offices designated for each client’s case. For many clients, this might have meant a tremendous commute to get to your “local” Hearings office.
When the hearings offices closed to the public, optional telephone hearings were then provided for clients and representatives to participate in hearings. At Evans & Evans, PC we found the telephone hearings to be a great alternative to not having hearings during the pandemic.
This past month, our firm was invited to participate in a “pilot” program of video teleconference hearings. We were told the option for video teleconference hearings will become available for all claimants in early 2021.
I was humbled when the Chief Judge of the Portland Hearings Office as well as the head office manager approached me to be a part of this pilot program. However, I had many questions and concerns that needed to be addressed before Evans & Evans, PC “jumped in.”
First, I did not want the Administrative Law Judge to hold it against my clients that they were able to use video software (i.e., the “sit and squiggle observational test” or the “pouring yourself a glass of water in the hearing” problem). I was reassured that Judges would not hold that against the clients.
Second, I was concerned that once we agreed to video hearings that our cases would be shipped out of town. I was also given assurances that would not happen (at least by the Portland OHO office). However, we represent a lot of people out of the Seattle OHO and they are starting to ship those cases all over the country for phone hearings.
Third, were the videos themselves being recorded or were they just recording the audio? As in other VTC hearings prior to COVID-19, only the audio was being recorded. Also, if there were problems with the video the Judge would switch to a phone hearing and/or delay the hearing for in-person hearing when available.
Fourth, what were the tech requirements and software requirements? Talking technology with a Judge, Attorney and Office manager is comparable to watching my grade school children talking about politics. However, here is a good website that outlines the technical requirements for MS Teams.
MS Teams (Prior to the Hearing)
MS Teams is similar to a popular video teleconference program called “Zoom.” However, due to security issues with zoom.com, SSA has decided to use MS Teams as the video conference platform for Social Security hearings.
MS Teams is a platform that can be used on a computer (with a camera and microphone), a smart phone and/or tablet. I am sure there are other devices that can probably use this platform as well. However, these are the three devices our firm has successfully used in hearings. https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/hardware-requirements-for-the-teams-app
MS Teams can be easily downloaded from an application store or online website. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/microsoft-teams/download-app
Once downloaded, walk through the prompts to set up your account. In my opinion, this can be done fairly easily. However, if you struggle with technology your firm should have someone who can be there ready to help with the process. At Evans & Evans, PC, we are fairly lucky to have many folks on our staff who have a very high competency level in current technology. If you are a claimant and currently unrepresented, I would invite you to call our office and we can help walk you through the setup process.
At Evans & Evans, PC, what we found helpful was e-mailing our client a MS Teams meeting invite for their first online video meeting with our staff member. Once they received the link it prompted them to the appropriate place to download the software.
Once the software was downloaded the client was able to test run MS Teams with our staff member. A subsequent video conference was then set up with the client and the attorney for our standard pre-hearing conference. We then scheduled a third MS Teams video meeting to have our clients participate in some sample questions via video conference as well.
Before the actual video hearing, our client has participated in three video meetings with our firm. We highly recommend that you at least participate in one video conference meeting with your attorney/client prior to your video hearing. A test run of the software is absolutely necessary.
MS Teams Video Hearing:
As the video hearings via MS Teams has not officially rolled out, I can only write about the few Social Security hearings that our firm has participated in.
In our “Pilot” hearings, we were asked to e-mail our clients’ e-mail address and the hearings attorney’s e-mail address to OHO. However, we were also invited to forward the invitation link to clients that did not want to give OHO their direct e-mail address. The day before the actual hearing an invitation link was e-mailed to the attorney and the client. The e-mail outlines the date and time of the hearing and provides special instructions as well. (I have posted a redacted E-MAIL below that we received prior to the hearing).
A few minutes before the hearing, you click on the link and MS Teams will launch. At this point, everyone is waiting for the Judge to start the hearing. In our hearings: the client was at home, I was at home and the Judge was at his home. (I only know this because the Judge told me he was at home). I was never in the same room with our clients. As noted above, we had three practice runs with our clients before the hearing itself actually took place.
MS Teams comes with an artificial background (I.e., fake bookshelf, pictures of a beach, etc.) that you can easily set as your background for your video. Therefore, if you are located in a messy room, the Judge cannot see your actual background location. In my video hearings the Judge had the SSA seal and logo as his background for his hearing.
In all of my hearings, the clients had no problems getting into the video hearing.
The majority of the clients used cell phones for the video hearing and one client used a laptop computer. Of the few hearings we have done so far, only one of the clients had actual WIFI service through an internet provider like Comcast. The other clients used their cellphone carriers’ internet (i.e., Verizon/ATT/Government issued phone, 4G/LTE). In one of the cases, the client’s video cut out (or froze) about 2% of the hearing. However, I have had much worse technical problems in phone hearings than I have had in these video hearings.
Participating by video were the Administrative Law Judge, myself and the client. The Vocational expert appeared by telephone. There was also a hearings reporter present, but not on camera.
The hearings themselves have gone extremely well. In all of my hearings the clients were able to connect smoothly and the hearings were performed as typical hearings would normally be performed.
There are several recommendations I would make after participating in video hearings.
First, you need to dress up. I showed up to the first hearing with just a collared shirt and tie. However, I ran to get my dress jacket once I realized the Judge decided to wear his black robe. (I was still in my shorts and flipflops though).
Second, for attorneys and representatives, I would recommend you have dual monitors. It was difficult for me to flip back and forth between my notes, ERE and the actual video hearing. I was able to minimize the screens and have them fit side by side on the same monitor and that worked fairly well. However, the best solution was to set up a dual monitor system. On one monitor I had my notes and ERE open and on the other was the actual hearing itself.
Third, it is important to note that the camera view is fairly close up to your face. It is very noticeable when the Judge is looking away or you are looking away from the camera. It is easier to read the micro expressions of the Judge in a video hearing vs. an in-person hearing. In one of my hearings, the Judge did a quick yawn and it was noticeable. (I am not sure if this say’s more abut my entertainment abilities in hearings or the Judge).
Fourth, set yourself up in comfortable place and if you cannot figure out how to change your background settings on your screen, you need to be in a place where you are comfortable having everyone see what is behind you in the room.
Fifth, this is not for every claimant. The cases Evans & Evans, PC chose to take to a video hearing were clients who really wanted to have an in-person hearing. The clients had to choose between waiting until OHO starts doing in-person hearings again or taking a video hearing. After my conversations with OHO management, it seems they have no idea when they are going to start doing in-person hearings again. My guess is it will not be until a vaccine for COVID-19 has been widely distributed (6-12 months from now). Some people have been stuck waiting at OHO for 6-12 months (or more) prior to COVID.
What cases are right for Video Hearings:
I highly recommend participating in video hearings. The setup process is fairly easy. The fact that we have an opportunity to communicate directly to the Administrative Law Judge via face-to-face video during COVID-19 is incredible. There are some that argue that 93% of communication is non-verbal and here is an opportunity that you can communicate more via video to your decision maker vs. just using the phone.
However, I recognize video hearings are probably not right for everyone. The cases Evans & Evans chose to take to video hearing were a couple of remand cases and initial hearing case where the client absolutely wanted to be in-person with the Judge. There are advantages to having the Judge and claimant look each other in the eye and present testimony. However, as I say to many of our clients, the key to winning a Social Security case is medical records… medical records… medical records. It is my opinion, that it is a rare case where testimony can outweigh the substance and content of the claimant’s medical records. However, I do believe testimony can help make a difference in filling in the gaps that medical records cannot explain.
The cases we did were dealing with both mental and physical disabilities. In one of my cases, the client is limited to simple, routine, repetitive type work. The client has mild to moderate symptoms from a traumatic brain injury. However, with the help of our staff and repeated practice with the software, he was able to participate in the video hearing. (It should be noted that this client will receive a fully favorable decision – The Judge did not hold it against my client for participating in the MS Teams video hearing and deem him capable of skilled [or semi-skilled] work because he wanted to see the Judge).
Again, if you are going to do the video hearing, the first time you do a video should not be at the hearing itself. You should absolutely have a video meeting prior to the hearing.
I do think the video hearings made a difference in the cases we decided to do this way. They were tough cases and needed that personal touch of the client being able to talk to the Judge face to face. I am still waiting for the actual decision on the other cases, so only time will tell.
Redacted E-MAIL from OHO
Hello: Peter & CLIENT,
This email provides basic information about Microsoft Teams, along with additional resources accessible on the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) website, which will assist you during your upcoming hearing. For questions regarding your scheduled hearing, please do not respond to this email. If you have questions, you may contact the Hearing Office at: (866) –*
Due to the Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) public health emergency, in March 2020, SSA temporarily closed its hearing offices to the public and started conducting hearings by telephone only. However, we are now able to conduct some hearings by online video using Microsoft Teams. We are sending you this email because you recently agreed to appear at your hearing by online video using Microsoft Teams.
We have scheduled your hearing for:
//2020 at ??:00 PM PT with ALJ
• Appearing at a Hearing by Online Video Using Microsoft Teams: Microsoft Teams is a user friendly, web-based technology that allows individuals in different locations to appear at an online video hearing using a computer, tablet, or mobile device with a private internet connection.
Before the hearing, you must download the Microsoft Teams application (app) if you are using a mobile device, or you must access Microsoft Teams from a supported internet browser (Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge) or the Microsoft Teams app if you are using a desktop or laptop. Standard data charges may apply when downloading the Microsoft Teams app. You may access the hearing using the link and instructions we provide below.
Click Here To Join Your Online Video Hearing
• Technical Issues: The SSA Hearings and Appeals webpage provides helpful information about how to download and install Microsoft Teams on your personal mobile device, as well as how to participate in your online video hearing and address any technical issues that may arise.
The PII you share with SSA during your online video hearing will be collected and maintained for the purpose of making a determination on your claim. For more information, or if you have questions about using Microsoft Teams for your upcoming online video hearing, please call your local hearing office for details.
Email Communications: You consented to receiving email or text messages from SSA. You may opt out of receiving electronic communications at any time, as it is not required for SSA’s programs. If you have questions about any electronic communications, please contact your local SSA hearing office. Standard message and data charges may apply.
Privacy Act Statement
Collection and Use of Personal Information
Sections 205 and 1631 of the Social Security Act, as amended, allow us to collect this information. Furnishing this information is voluntarily. However, failing to provide all or part of the requested information may prevent us from making an accurate and timely decision on your claim.
We will use the information to make a determination regarding your claim for benefits. We may also share your information for the following purposes, called routine uses:
• To third party contacts, where necessary, to establish or verify information provided by representative payees or payee applicants; and
• To private medical and vocational consultants, for use in preparing for, or evaluating the results of, consultative medical examinations or vocational assessments which they were engaged to perform by SSA or a State agency, in accordance with sections 221 or 1633 of the Social Security Act.
In addition, we may share this information in accordance with the Privacy Act and other Federal laws. For example, where authorized, we may use and disclose this information in computer matching programs, in which our records are compared with other records to establish or verify a person’s eligibility for Federal benefit programs and for repayment of incorrect or delinquent debts under these programs.
A list of additional routine uses is available in our Privacy Act System of Records Notices (SORN) 60-0006, entitled Storage of Hearing Records: Tape Cassettes, as published in the Federal Register (FR) on November 11, 2006 at 71 FR 1804; and 60-0320, entitled Electronic Disability (eDIB) Claim File, as published in the FR on June 4, 2020 at 85 FR 34477. Additional information and a full listing of all of our SORNs is available on our website at www.ssa.gov/privacy.