After you apply for disability benefits your case is sent to the Disability Determination Services (DDS). This is a state government agency. An examiner at the DDS will be assigned to your claim. This persons’ job is to look at your claim and decide if you are eligible for disability because you meet the Social Security Administrations definition of being disabled. The examiner bases his/her decision off of your paperwork and your medical records as well as the opinion of a medical or psychological consultant (who works for the DDS) to make an opinion about whether or not you qualify for benefits. The examiner does not meet with you in person. If the DDS examiner finds that you meet the criteria for disability then you will be approved for disability benefits. Should your case be denied, you can file a reconsideration appeal. Your case would then be sent back to the DDS, most often to a different examiner. Reconsideration appeals are denied more often than not.
If your original claim and your reconsideration appeal have been denied then this is where the Administrative Law Judge comes in. The ALJ works for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) which is a branch of the Social Security Administration. After both your original claim and your reconsideration appeal have been denied, you may request a hearing with an ALJ. This hearing will be a face to face meeting with a judge. The ALJ will listen to your testimony and possibly listen to testimony of expert witnesses in addition to considering your medical records. You can bring your most current medical records and an RFC form from your doctor.
The chances of you winning your claim from a hearing with an ALJ are greater than winning your original claim from a DDS examiner because the ALJ gets more of an in depth view of you and your medical records where the DDS examiner gets a less-personal overview of your case.