Over a year ago, a man in his early 50s came to Legal Aid asking for representation in an appeal from the denial of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. The client had experience in the construction and landscape fields, but he was no longer able to do that work, primarily due to injuries sustained after falling off a ten-foot wall in 2010.
The client filed his initial SSI benefits application four years ago. When his application was denied, he filed a Request for Reconsideration, and, when that was denied, requested an administrative hearing. A hearing was held, and the Administrative Law Judge again denied his claim.
Undeterred, the client appealed his case to the Appeals Council at the Social Security Administration (SSA). That’s when Vinson & Elkins attorneys Dmitry Slavin, Kathleen Neace and Erin Rankin volunteered to help. Below they share with us some thoughts from their experience.
As lawyers, we recognize the importance of pro bono work. We should represent persons who cannot afford or are otherwise unable to obtain counsel. In addition to meeting our professional obligations, pro bono work provides an opportunity for new attorneys to learn valuable lessons.
Although the firm has had a longstanding relationship with Legal Aid and team member Erin Rankin had previously done substantial work with the organization, this case brought with it new and novel experiences. We learned two lessons that we will take with us throughout our careers: double-check everything, and be flexible.
Double-check everything. One of our first steps was to file an Appointment of Representation form, entering an appearance on behalf of our client at the Appeals Council. We sent the form and accompanying letter by certified mail and received confirmation that it had been delivered.
Even so, we called the Council’s office—many months before we expected to hear from them—to see that everything was in order. We were told that they could not talk with us because they mistakenly believed that we had not filed a representation form.
We immediately sent over another representation form and followed up every day until the Council confirmed receipt. Even though we had proof that the initial form had been properly delivered, had we not called to double check that everything was in order, our client’s appeal might have languished or proceeded to decision without the benefit of counsel.
Be flexible. It turns out that we acted in the nick of time because the Council was almost ready to consider our client’s appeal. Although we had learned from other attorneys who regularly handle these cases and the Council directly that it can take more than 15 months from the filing date before the Council considers an appeal, our client’s appeal was proceeding quickly—much faster than the average case.
We immediately requested an extension to file our brief, and we soon learned that the extension would be 20 days from the date of our request, rather than the original deadline. That left us with two weeks before the filing deadline.
Thankfully, we were prepared. We had already reviewed and organized volumes of new evidence and affidavits supporting our client’s claim for benefits.
Although our client’s primary care provider, a nurse practitioner, had thoroughly documented our client’s disability and that evidence previously had been submitted to support our client’s claim, SSA regulations do not allow a nurse practitioner’s diagnosis to establish disability unless it is corroborated by a physician. Fortunately, as part of our preparation, we had identified an evaluation completed by a physician, confirming the diagnosis made by the nurse practitioner – a key piece of evidence that ultimately was cited in the Appeals Council decision.
After submitting our brief and more than 100 pages of supporting evidence, we expected to wait many months for a decision. Moreover, although we had a strong case, we recognized that it was possible that the case would be remanded for further consideration.
The Council surprised us two more times. First, it issued its opinion less than two months after our filing. Second, instead of remanding, it issued a fully favorable decision, awarding our client benefits.
Our work on this case was rewarding in so many ways. The biggest and instant reward was telling our client earlier this summer – long before we expected a final resolution – that after four years, he would finally receive the benefits to which he was entitled. While that alone would have been enough, the practical lessons we learned from this representation provide other long-term rewards – ones that will stay with us our entire careers.