STATUS OF IN PERSON HEARINGS AND DISTRICT OFFICE MATTERS
As we know, the District Offices and the Hearing Offices are closed to the public. They now have limited public hours by appointment on a case-by-case basis for emergency matters. I am not aware of the criteria used by the District Office to determine whether or not to meet a claimant in person. I will update this blog as soon as that information becomes available.
The Hearing Offices remain closed to the public, with all hearings being conducted by telephone or video.
This week the SSA disclosed that a Memorandum of Understanding had been reached with the Association of Administrative Law Judges (the union representing the administrative law judges that staff the Hearing Offices) on the return of in-person hearings. ALJ’s covered by the union can volunteer to hold in-person hearings beginning May 4, 2022; all ALJ’s, except those with medical exemptions, will be required to do so starting June 3, 2022.
Everyone who enters the Hearing Office will be required to complete a screening questionnaire and wear a mask, and masks will be made available to claimants. The MOU says only ALJs, claimants, parents of child claimants, and representatives will be allowed in the hearing room. Nothing has been said yet about hearing reporters, interpreters, and necessary support people for adult claimants. Hearing offices will provide opportunities for distancing, plexiglass barriers between the ALJ and others in the room, enhanced cleaning protocols, HEPA filtration, and other safety measures. ALJs will be provided with face shields but are not required to wear them.
In-person hearings will be scheduled at least 75 days in advance unless both the ALJ and the claimant consent to less notice. Converting hearings to in-person if they are already scheduled for telephone or video, scheduling in-person and remote (phone or video) hearings on the same day, and “backfilling” hearings into an ALJ’s existing schedule will all require the ALJ’s written approval.
This Memorandum of Understanding does not affect SSA’s existing plans to have non-union ALJs, such as National Hearing Center ALJs, Hearing Office Chief ALJs, and Regional Chief ALJs, hold up to three in-person hearings per day beginning in March for a very limited subset of cases (primarily aged critical cases where the claimant has chosen not to accept a phone or video hearing).