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Q&A: Expert witnesses key to SSA disability benefits

Applying for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration is a long process. Claimants have to be sure they get plenty of medical records, send in their application, appeal if need be and, after all that, if they are not approved, go to a hearing. At the hearing, there will be expert witnesses, something applicants should be prepared for with legal help.

Harold W. Conick has been practicing law for more than three decades and knows what it takes to cross-examine these expert witnesses. He answered some questions about these SSA-employed experts.

Question: Who are the expert witnesses that appear at a hearing?

Conick: The Social Security Administration hires expert witnesses for the hearing who are vocational and medical experts (either physicians or psychologists). They essentially are someone who is an expert in jobs and a doctor. The medical expert is at the hearings to help the judge understand the medical evidence. The vocational expert is there to answer questions about what types of jobs might be available considering limitations caused by a medical condition.

Q: Why are the experts important?

C: The client has to know that those experts are hired by the SSA and they generally lean towards assisting the administration with understanding the medical and vocational evidence. However, they have a tendency to be biased. Not all of them are but some of them are.

Q: How do you prepare for the bias?

C: You presume that they are biased and just ask them questions on cross examination that will support my theory of the case. The questions I ask them will elicit testimony that is supportive of the client’s case. I’ll try to use them as my expert in that sense.

Q: What should a client know about these witnesses before going in?

C: They should know that the experts are generally going to try to interpret the medical evidence such that the judge would not consider the claimant disabled. There really isn’t much the client can do about it. Their best shot is what their own medical records can show the judge. The experts tend to find the person isn’t so sick that they can perform some type of the job

Cross-examination is important. That’s one of the values lawyers bring to the case. A good attorney can cross-examine the expert witness on the fly.

Q: Is there ever a shift in who is considered employable due to the economy?

C: The economy doesn’t really have anything to do with it. Experts are looking at a hypothetical person with certain limitations and whether they can perform a job. There are different categories of jobs: Sedentary, light, medium and heavy exertional levels. The vocational expert can testify to a hypothetical given by the judge as to whether the person has the same limitations and can perform certain level of job activity.

Q: How much bearing does what the expert says have on the court’s decision?

C: It’s significant. If the vocational expert testifies that there is no work a claimant can do, the judge has to find them disabled. If they say otherwise, the judge will consider that too. It’s evidence.

A lot of it is like judges: It will depend on which expert you get. They look at the evidence beforehand and make a judgement call. They don’t try to be dishonest, but they also know who pays them.

Severe migraine sufferers could get disability benefits

Those who are suffering from migraine headaches know all too well the debilitating agony that can seem to last for days. This could leave people going in and out of doctors offices and unable to work. Not all hope should be lost, as those with severe cases of migraine headaches may be able to qualify for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration. gave some basics for how those feeling the effects of migraines might be able to get the disabilities they desperately need. First, claimants must be sure they are getting records of doctors visits and migraine treatments. The more records someone has the better off they will be when trying to convince a judge they should be awarded disability benefits. Also useful will be the names of the medications being used, the jobs held over the past decade and any tests that were performed.

The website said people should consider hiring a lawyer, especially since the wait time for approval or denial may take months, even years in some cases.

“It’s not fair, but the backlog of applications varies by location,” Diana Lee wrote on’s blog.

WebMD said there are multiple types of headaches and migraines people can suffer from, including ocular migraines, which may cause blindness, and Hemicrania Continua, which are a rare type of headache or migraine that do not stop. Money may not be everything in stopping these headaches, but it can help keep claimants on their feet while they look to treatment to help them.

Claimants should be prepared to testify about the mental and physical limitations their migraines have caused them to deal with. For instance, do they miss work or other activities due to their headaches? How often? What medical treatment have they attempted to control the migraines? How has the onset of headaches changed how they conduct their daily activities?

The Law Offices of Harold W. Conick and Associates has successfully represented numerous migraine suffering claimants before the SSA obtain their disability benefits.

Disability benefits available for those with Crohn’s disease

Many people affected by Crohn’s disease are often not sure what to do. The disease affects the digestive tract, usually in the small and large intestine, leaving ulcers and bowel obstructions. This may often leave the person suffering unable to work in full or any capacity. Help may be available, as disability benefits from the Social Security Administration could be attained for those who are being kept down by this disease.

Common symptoms of Crohn’s disease, according to, include abdominal pain, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea and bloody stool. The website said this can often lead to extreme discomfort, missed days of work and even an inability to work altogether. The most serious cases of the illness may even call for surgery to repair damaged tissue in the sufferer.

HealthCentral said this illness can happen at any age, but those between the ages of 18 and 35 are the most frequent sufferers. This will likely make it much more difficult to prove the disability in front of an SSA judge, so the claimant needs to be sure to have plenty of doctors visits and records to have a record of how the Crohn’s disease has been affecting them.

“Track your drug regimens and any improvements, setbacks, side effects, scans, tests, and operations and their corresponding medical records,” Healthline said.

In order to prove a person suffering from Crohn’s disease is disabled under the Social Security regulations, it is necessary to demonstrate through documents and oral testimony that the symptoms are severe. They must be serious enough to prevent a person from participating in all suitable competitive employment.

Pain levels and frequency of bathroom use are relevant facts that could persuade an administrative judge that a person cannot maintain the concentration and focus necessary to hold employment.

The Law Offices of Harold W. Conick & Associates has successfully represented numerous claimants suffering from Crohn’s disease in obtaining their benefits.

Groups worried VA changes may harm veteran benefits

Some veterans organizations across the country bristled when they heard about proposed changes made by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. According to, proposed rule shifts may create a rift between those filing for veterans benefits through paper and those doing it electronically.

While VA told the website that they want to make it as fast and easy as possible to apply for and get benefits, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, and other groups said they believe these changes may hurt those veterans without access to a computer or the Internet.

“This proposed regulation separates claimants into two groups,” the Legion said in its letter to the VA, according to “Claimants who can access the internet and claimants who are not able to access the internet. This bifurcated separation of claimants penalizes those claimants not able to access the internet and therefore is not fair.”

The main issue for these groups is a change that would give paper filings a date from the day they are completed, according to the website, whereas electronic applications would have more time and leeway.

VA reported that there has been progress in the large backlog since earlier this year. The department’s website reported that disability and pension claims in the backlog were reduced by 36 percent from March to December 2013.

The Internet is here to stay. All government agencies and modern business are either fully using the electronic platform to conduct business or are trying to employ this system. It will serve veterans attempting to secure VA benefits to seek assistance from professionals when filling or appealing a claim. The Law Offices of Harold W. Conick & Associates is available to assist veterans with their claims and appeals for benefits.

Changes to SSA disability taking place to start 2014

Anyone looking to apply for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration needs to take note of some of the recent changes the SSA has put into place. The Wall Street Journal listed six key changes to start 2014, including starting to change the job listings that applicants can be matched to. This was previously out of date and is expected to better suit current realities by 2016.

Another change coming is to “the grid,” or something that administrative law judges utilize to check if someone qualifies for benefits. Judges believe it has become easier to “work” the grid, which weighs factors such as age and illness to see how likely it is someone should qualify for disability benefits.

Other possible upcoming changes, according to the journal, include:
– A rule proposal that will prevent firms from holding back information related to a disability application
– The caseload of judges will likely be ramped up to tackle the huge backlog
– There will be a closer look into whether doctors and lawyers in the agency are trying to scam the SSA
– More scrutiny is expected to be put on administrative judges within the SSA

The Social Security Administration’s claims and adjudication system is an evolving work in progress. It must adapt to changes in both medical science and the competitive work environment in order to expeditiously adjudicate the claims that come in front of it.

The Law Offices of Harold W. Conick & Associates has more than 30 years of experience in successfully representing the disabled in a changing legal landscape.