Equal Justice America Disability Rights Clinic
John Jay Legal Services
Pace University School of Law
June 30, 2004
Completing its fourth 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 full-time clinical faculty, students enrolled in clinical courses 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 2003-2004 academic year is attached.
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 year, 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.
For the 2003-2004 academic year, the Clinic was again offered as a two-semester course. This change was in response to our experience that one semester (14 weeks) was too short a time for students to master the building block lawyering skills and go on to apply them meaningfully on cases involving actual clients. Students still have the option of taking the Clinic for between three and 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 2003-2004 academic year, a total of seven students were enrolled in the Clinic. In addition to these seven students, an eighth student who had participated in the clinic during 2002-2003, received field work credit only during the fall semester.
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 four years, including Westchester ARC, New York Legal Assistance Group, Mt. Vernon Board of Education, the Parent Connection at the Westchester Institute for Human Development, the Program for Family Support at North Central Bronx Hospital, and the Social Security Administration. Two former clients have returned to us for additional assistance as they developed new legal needs. 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.
Social Security Cases
We are representing E.E., a profoundly deaf man, in his effort to have a Social Security overpayment of nearly $10,000 waived. Prior to coming to the Clinic, Mr. E. represented himself at a hearing before a Social Security Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). After an unfavorable decision from the ALJ, Mr. E., again on his own, filed an appeal in Federal Court. After the government agreed that the ALJ's decision was in error, the case was returned to the Social Security Administration for a new hearing. The student assigned to the case is prepared to prove at this new hearing that Mr. E. was not at fault at causing the overpayment and is not in a position to pay it back. The student has also assisted Mr. E. to reapply for Social Security disability benefits and counseled him on how to avoid incurring an overpayment in the future should he be able to return to work.
We are also representing M.B., who suffers from several chronic conditions, in his appeal of the denial of Social Security benefits. The student handling Mr. B.'s case has learned about each of his ailments, spoken to Mr. B's doctors, obtained medical records and reports, and will represent Mr. B. in a hearing before an ALJ in August.
We are continuing to work with M.G., who, after receiving a negative decision from the Social Security Appeals Council, decided to reapply for Supplemental Security Income. The student assigned to Ms. G. is working with her doctors to ensure that they accurately describe her impairments and how they affect her ability to work, thus maximizing her chance of obtaining benefits.
Lifetime and Estate Planning
A student prepared wills for T. and M. J., the parents of a severely disabled child. Although the parents are of modest means, they wanted to ensure that their daughter's eligibility for government benefits was not jeopardized by any inheritance. The student counseled them about their options and drafted wills which create a supplement needs trust for the daughter in the event of their deaths.
We are also assisting L.C., the guardian of her mentally retarded son, G. G.'s grandmother died and left him a share of her estate, which included real property. The student assigned to Ms. C., has filed petitions in Westchester Surrogate's Court asking for permission to sell G.'s share in the property and to establish a special needs trust with the proceeds so that G. can continue to receive Medicaid benefits.
We worked with four families of disabled adults who needed legal authority to make financial and other decisions for their family member. In each case the family members were extensively counseled about the options available to them and how to manage their relative's funds without jeopardizing their eligibility for government benefits.
Guardianship petitions have been filed in three of the cases, one in the Bronx, and two in Westchester.
We worked intensively with the son of a long-time nursing home resident (D.C.) who hadbeen admitted to a psychiatric hospital. When Ms. C.'s doctors decided she was able to return to the nursing home, the nursing home refused to readmit her. The student assigned to Ms. C.'s case researched relevant state and federal laws and determined that Ms. C. had the right to appeal the home's decision. Although Ms. C. and her family ultimately decided that it was in her best interest to go to another nursing home, the student was prepared to prove at a hearing that Ms. C. was entitled to return to the home where she had lived for eight years.
We also continued to work with J. S., a mentally retarded man and his elderly mother. When the S.'s failed to pay their rent for several months, their landlord filed eviction proceedings. The student who had been working with Mr. S. appeared on his behalf in court and negotiated a settlement of the matter so the S.'s housing was preserved. The student also arranged for on-going case management assistance for this very vulnerable family.
III. Plans for the Future
All students with on-going cases have agreed to continue to work on them over the summer. This represents a high degree of professionalism on their part and will ensure continuity in representation.
Six students have enrolled in the Clinic for the 2004-2005 academic year. 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.
 Stephan H. Krieger, et al., Essential Lawyering Skills (Aspen Law & Business, 1999).