Equal Justice America Disability Rights Clinic
John Jay Legal Services
Pace University School of Law
May 28, 2002

I. Introduction

Completing its second year of operation, the Equal Justice America Disability Rights Clinic at Pace University School of Law continues its dual mission of training future lawyers and providing free legal services to low income disabled persons of all ages. It has become an integral part of the Law School's Clinical Program located at John Jay Legal Services and its Health Law and Policy Program.

The Health Law and Policy Program provides Pace law students with the opportunity to gain specialized knowledge in the rapidly expanding field of health law. A Certificate in Health Law and Policy is awarded to those students who demonstrate proficiency in the field by taking a prescribed number of required and elective courses relevant to the practice of health law and related social and economic policy issues.

Pace Law School's clinical offerings enable students to gain proficiency in lawyering skills while representing clients pursuant to a Student Practice Order issued by the Appellate Division, Second Department of the New York State Supreme Court. Under supervision of clinical faculty, students enrolled in clinical courses may perform all lawyering functions normally reserved to lawyers admitted to practice. In addition to the Equal Justice America Disability Rights Clinic, clinical offerings are available in criminal defense, securities arbitration and the prosecution of domestic violence in cooperation with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

II. Equal Justice America Disability Rights Clinic

The Equal Justice America Disability Rights Clinic provides students with the opportunity to learn and apply lawyering skills as well as the substantive law relating to the rights of disabled persons in a highly controlled and intensively supervised legal practice environment. For most students, it is their first experience with law as lawyers.

In a weekly seminar, students learn and practice lawyering skills such as interviewing, counseling, negotiation, fact investigation, and conducting administrative hearings. The learning of these skills is integrated with relevant substantive law, including eligibility for the government benefit programs available to disabled persons (Social Security Disability, Supplemental Security Income, Medical Assistance) and the planning tools available to disabled persons and their families (guardianships, wills, special needs trusts). The seminar also provides the opportunity for students to present issues and choices from the cases they are working on and benefit from the critical reflection of their colleagues. Ethical issues are discussed as they arise in individual cases with particular emphasis on the complexities of working with clients of diminished mental capacity. Students learn how to read and interpret medical records and work with medical personnel to describe a client's medical condition using legally relevant terminology. Students also learn how to work with other helping professionals, such as social workers, doctors, nurses and advocates to identify and meet clients' non-legal needs. Readings from an excellent text for clinical students are supplemented with readings directly relevant to disability law. A copy of the syllabus for the Fall, 2001 semester is attached. During the spring semester, in addition to their individual caseloads, all students worked collaboratively on a particularly challenging guardianship case. This group effort enabled the Clinic to handle a case that could not have been managed by one or two students and gave the students the opportunity to learn about and put into practice the very important lawyering skill of collaboration.

Clinic students, either individually or in teams, have primary responsibility for the conduct of their assigned cases. The student lawyer is responsible for planning each lawyering activity, reviewing the plan with the Clinic Faculty Supervisor, conducting the activity and finally, reflecting on the experience and the usefulness of the preparation. Throughout the semester, each student engages in client interviewing and counseling, fact investigation and witness interviewing, legal research and analysis, and drafting a variety of legal documents and instruments. Most students have the opportunity to appear before a court or administrative tribunal.

Students have taken the Clinic for one or two semesters and for three or six credits each semester. The three credit option is especially appropriate for part-time and evening students, who may be working full-time in addition to attending law school. All students participate in the seminar and each student's case load is tailored to his or her interests and time constraints. For example, a student who is not available during normal working hours will be assigned to cases which involve transactional work only, which can be performed during the evening hours and weekends. Other students with more flexible schedules are assigned cases which may involve day-time appearances before courts or administrative tribunals. Students enrolled in the Clinic for three credits are expected to devote eight to ten hours per week to clinic responsibilities. The time commitment for students enrolled for six credits is 15-20 hours per week.

During the 2001-2002 academic year, a total of ten students were enrolled in the Clinic. Six students participated for two semesters; four students participated for one semester. In addition to the students formally enrolled in the Clinic, several students who were enrolled in the Clinic during the 2000-2001 academic year continued to work on their cases on a volunteer basis over the summer and during the 2001-2002 year. These students have demonstrated an early commitment to pro bono work, and for their clients were able to mitigate one of the shortcomings of legal services provided by law school clinics, namely, the frequent transfer of cases when a student lawyer's participation in the clinic ends. Several students have continued working on their cases, even after graduation.

The cases handled involved a variety of legal issues faced by disabled persons and their families. Clients were referred by several social service agencies with which we have formed alliances during the past three years, including Westchester ARC, New York Legal Assistance Group, DIHR (Dignity, Independence and Human Rights, a non-profit advocacy serving the developmentally disabled, their families and providers), Westchester Independent Living Center, Westchester Putnam Legal Services, Service Office of White Plains, Richmond Community Services, Visiting Nurse Service of New York, Westchester Residential Opportunities and New York Assistive Technology Advocacy Project. Several former clients have returned to us for additional assistance as they developed new legal needs.

The cases handled this year fall into the following categories:

Supplemental Security Income 2
  Social Security Disability 2
  Waivers of Overpayments 2
  Wills and Estate Planning 3
  Guardianships of Mentally Retarded Adults 6
  Medicaid Coverage for Assistive Technology 1
  Medicaid Home Care 1
  Nursing Home Advocacy 1
  Disabled Access to Public Housing 1
  Article 81 Guardianship 1
  Hospital Advocacy 1

All of the clients are low income. They are unable to pay for the legal help they need and were unable to secure representation from other sources of free legal services.

Several of the cases, highlighted here, resulted in fully favorable decisions by an Administrative Law Judge, after an administrative hearing.

R.L. is a young woman with a long history of depression and anxiety disorder who has made many unsuccessful attempts to work. Her application for Social Security Disability benefits had been denied and the students assigned to her case spent many hours gathering and analyzing medical records which documented her impairments and enlisting the cooperation of her therapists in order to present an accurate picture of how her illness prevented her from successfully working. After an administrative hearing, the judge awarded Ms. L. benefits retroactive to March 2000. Ms. L., who had been dependent on public assistance benefits, can now count on a monthly income of $565.

J.P., a quadriplegic, had requested that Medicaid approve the purchase of an item of durable medical equipment which would enable him to develop upper body strength and maintain respiratory health. After Medicaid denied his initial request, the Clinic helped his doctor prepare an appropriate request. After the request was denied, the case was assigned to new students who represented the client at a Fair Hearing. At the Fair Hearing, the students were able to show that the doctor’s request established Mr. P.’s need for the equipment. The equipment has been delivered and Mr. P. is being trained to use it by his physical therapist.

The Clinic also successfully represented MR, who had been charged with an overpayment by the Social Security Administration. Despite severe mental illness, Mr. R. has been able to work periodically as a messenger. Through a series of mistakes, Social Security overpaid Mr. R. over $15,000 and asked him to repay it out of his monthly benefit. At an Administrative Hearing, the student assigned to Mr. R.’s case was able to prove that Mr. R. was not at fault in causing the overpayment and that it would be a hardship for him to pay it back. At the close of the hearing the Judge indicated that he would order the overpayment waived. We are awaiting that formal decision.

The Clinic also represented JC, whose application for Social Security Disability payments had been denied. Mr. C. had worked as a laborer until a severe injury to his arm made such work impossible. The students working with Mr. C. encouraged him to seek medical treatment, and, although he will not be able to regain the use of his arm, the documentation supplied by Mr. C.’s doctors was enough to convince the Administrative Law Judge to grant benefits without holding a hearing.

III. Plans for the Future

Over the summer, two students will be assisting with ongoing cases on a volunteer basis.

Six students have enrolled in the Clinic for the entire 2002-2003 academic year. Beginning in the fall, the Clinic will be available as a two-semester offering. Students will still have the option of registering for between 3 and 6 credits each semester. We are making this change based on our experience that students who are enrolled for only one semester usually do not get to complete the work on their cases. This happens both because even the simplest case before an administrative agency takes considerable time from start to finish and because so much of the first semester must be devoted to the fundamental practice skills in order to prepare students to handle their casework competently. We will continue to offer high quality representation to disabled persons and their families being served by cooperating social service agencies. Moreover, we anticipate that the Clinic’s graduates will continue to use the skills they developed to effectively represent disabled clients once they become practicing attorneys.

2An exception will be made for students who are graduating in December.