By Garrett Bych (Student Legal Advocate, Administrative/Disability Clinic, WilmerHale Legal Services Center)
Let’s assume that you have a serious physical disability that prevents you from working. You have two daughters dependent upon your care and you want to go back to work so that you can support them, but you simply can’t. Physical labor is too intensive, and you can’t stay seated long enough to complete sedentary work. So what do you do? You end up heading down to your local Social Security office one afternoon and you apply for disability benefits. You work a few odd jobs in the meantime just to put food on the table, but after 3-4 months, your disability claim is denied. You quickly file for reconsideration, but when that doesn’t pan out; you wonder if you have any options left.
Social Security tells you that you can file for a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge, but that it usually takes more than 6 months just to be scheduled. You follow their advice, and you decide to contact a public service organization to help you with your disability claim.
It is important to establish at this point just what such a public service organization can do. When claimants are first accepted as clients by the Legal Services Center, they often have very strong cases but simply no one to represent them. They are some of the most kind-hearted people you will ever meet, and they are in desperate need of financial help due to unfortunate circumstances and in many cases, a lack of opportunity. They are not familiar with how Social Security Disability Claims work, and thus their applications may sit unprocessed in the system for weeks, months or even years. As previously stated, these individuals cannot afford to wait weeks, months or years for decisions. They are out of work and in dire need of monetary support. Some clients go back to work part-time even though it makes their respective conditions worse because by doing so, they can at least put some food on the table and pay a little bit of rent.
Unfortunately, their troubles are not magically whisked away by being put on retainer with a public service organization. However, the Legal Services Center can be extremely helpful when it comes to understanding how the Social Security Administration works, and when they may need a good shove in the right direction. The Administrative/Disability Clinic at the Legal Services Center specializes in helping clients at the hearing stage of their claim, which means that we at the Center use medical evidence to build the case of our client and then argue that case at a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge.
Let’s return now to the previously described case. Our client came to us after being denied reconsideration, and we built his case and prepared for his hearing. Unfortunately, he received an unfavorable decision from the judge. We quickly appealed the decision. A couple of years later (no that is not a typo) our client was finally approved for disability benefits- with a catch. When an individual is approved for benefits, these benefits often come in two forms: a monthly check for benefits and a gross retroactive check, or back-payment, that covers the entire period since the individual claimed he or she was disabled. For instance, if you applied for benefits and said you had been disabled since 2006, if you get approved in 2011, you will get one check covering all of the monthly benefits you have missed since 2006 when you became disabled. For our specific case, Social Security decided that they would withhold $500 every month from our client’s monthly check in order to pay out child support. This would have made perfect sense, if the back payment our client received hadn’t already covered the child support. After two more years of fighting with Social Security, our client received a letter this past week approving his family for just under $100,000 in retroactive benefits from his disability claim. These benefits can not only solve the child support case, but actually help put his kids through college down the line. For families that may be struggling to put food on the table on a week by week basis, it can not be overstated how important these benefits are.
Without representation, over 70% of applicants for disability benefits will be denied. Even with representation, getting approved by the Social Security Administration is no easy task, as highlighted by the case above which is still open 5 years after our client’s initial application. Even though this case initially began in 2008 and was not fully resolved until 2013, on weeks like this one, you must celebrate any victory, and this is no small victory for a worthy individual and his representatives. Social Security got this one right, and all it took was a good shove in the right direction.
Supervisor’s note: Some of the HLS students who contributed significantly to the success of this case are Haben Girma ’13, Alex Smith ’13, Jhoshua Friedman ’12, Stephanie Neely ’12 and Rajan Sonik ‘12