Equal Justice America Disability Rights Clinic
John Jay Legal Services
Pace University School of Law
June 30, 2005
Completing its fifth 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 and their families
Pace Law School's clinical
offerings, under the umbrella of John Jay Legal Services, 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, John Jay Legal Services also provides representation to individuals by student attorneys enrolled in the Securities Arbitration Clinic, the Criminal Justice Clinic and the Immigration Justice Clinic. In addition to these "live client" clinics, field work in the non-profit legal arena is available to students through the Legal Services/Public Interest/Health Law Externship.
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 focused on learning lawyering skills are supplemented with readings directly relevant to disability law.
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 2004-2005 academic year, the Clinic was again offered as a two-semester course. Students 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 spend on average five hours per week per clinical credit on case-related work.
During the 2004-2005 academic year, seven students were enrolled in the Clinic. In addition to these seven students, two student who had participated in the clinic during 2003-2004, 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 five years, including SKIP of New York, 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 Westchester ARC. 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 cases completed during the year were begun during the previous year.
Lifetime and Estate Planning
In a case that began in 2003-2004, a student attorney obtained permission from the Westchester Surrogate's Court to establish a special needs trust for G., the mentally retarded son of L.C. who is his guardian. The trust was funded with proceeds from the sale of real property G inherited from his grandmother. The student attorney drafted the trust document and petitions to the Surrogate's Court for permission to sell the real property and fund the trust. As a result, G. will continue to receive Medicaid benefits and will be eligible for group home services when his mother is no longer able to care for him. G.'s modest inheritance can be used to pay for needs not covered by government benefit programs.
A student attorney counseled two clients who are residents of a local nursing home. The clients hoped to leave the nursing home and live independently in the community. The student thoroughly researched their options and advised them that they could place their income in a special needs trust and remain eligible for Medicaid once they found suitable housing in the community.
Another student attorney drafted wills for Mr. and Mrs. L., an elderly couple with no children. The clients were counseled extensively by the student and chose to sign health care proxies and durable powers of attorney to ensure that their financial and personal affairs are handled if they become incapacitated.
A student attorney drafted a will for Mr. F, the widowed father of a disabled child. The will appoints a guardian for minor children and establishes a special needs trust for the disabled child.
Wills are also being drafted for Mr. and Mrs. G., a young couple with minor children. Although they are low income, the G.'s wanted to make sure that their children were provided for in the event of their deaths and were counseled concerning the need to appoint guardians and trustees if they die before all of their children reach the age of 18.
We worked with nine 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 six of the cases, one in the Bronx, and four in Westchester. One case involved a guardian who wished to appoint a new standby guardian. Decisions appointing the petitioners as guardian have been received in two cases; we expect decisions in the other cases soon. Work on the remaining three cases is proceeding over the summer.
Social Security Cases
In August 2004, a student attorney represented M.B., who suffers from several chronic conditions, at a hearing before a Social Security administrative law judge. After the hearing, which was handled by the student attorney, the judge ruled that Mr. B. was disabled under the Social Security Act and awarded back benefits from the date of application. Because of this determination, Mr. B. was also awarded a disability pension from his union.
The Rose Simon Program, a program serving children with developmental disabilities in Mt. Vernon, held a day-long program for parents in late May. Gretchen Flint, faculty supervisor, conducted two workshops about guardianships and financial planning. The clinic students drafted an information sheet for parents that explains in simple language what parents need to know about guardianship when their disabled children turn 18. In the fall, student attorneys will return to Mt. Vernon to assist parents who wish to initiate guardianship proceedings.
In early June, Prof. Flint was the featured speaker at a meeting of the Westchester Chapter for the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill. This well-attended meeting focused on eligibility for Social Security Disability and SSI.
III. Plans for the Future
Two students have agreed to continue to work on on-going cases over the summer. This represents a high degree of professionalism on their part and will ensure continuity in representation.
Ten students have enrolled in the Clinic for the 2005-2006 academic year. We will continue to offer high quality representation to disabled persons and their families in Westchester and neighboring counties.