The Health Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law has stacked an impressive streak of wins in the Fall semester for their underserved clientele. The clinic won five Social Security cases for clients who had been wrongly denied benefits. The clinic had been fighting one such action since 2014.
“We have been so happy that we have been able to continue our successful representation of clients during the COVID pandemic,” said the clinic’s director, JoNel Newman. “Our students have learned to advocate under challenging circumstances, working virtually with clients and with the courts and agencies. They’ve had to get creative to ensure that the vulnerable people our clinic represents get the justice they deserve; and they have risen to the occasion.”
The Health Rights Clinic is a medical-legal partnership operated in collaboration with the UM Miller School of Medicine. Students participating in the clinic represent multiple clients in different legal matters related to health. Under the guidance of Newman and Associate Director Melissa Swain, clinic students spend the academic year representing low-income patients from UM’s Comprehensive AIDS Program, Sylvester Cancer Center, and other medical partners.
Long Road to Justice
Six years ago, the clinic took on the case of a young woman who was born with HIV and had suffered related brain damage. Social Security had terminated her from receiving her childhood disability benefits in 2013. Clinic lawyers and student interns appealed the denial in a hearing before a Social Security administrative law judge in 2015 and appeared at a supplemental hearing before the administrative law judge in 2016. At each of these hearings the client was represented clinic students.
When the ALJ denied her case in 2016, the clinic students appealed to the Social Security Appeals Council. The appeals council denied review in 2018, and clinic students then appealed the case to the federal district court.
After a court hearing in August 2019, the U.S. District Court granted the clinic's motion for summary judgment in September 2019. The case was sent back down to a new administrative law judge for a new hearing applying the right legal standards.
Second-year law student Huiping Liu represented the client, who is now 25, at her September 2020 hearing, and she was finally awarded the retroactive benefits she deserved all these years. Since the clinic took on the client’s case in 2014, seven interns worked on the case over the six years. In addition to the legal work, each intern wrote carefully detailed transition memos recording the timeline, facts, procedural history, and the next item to work on so that the incoming students could continue the work left by the previous intern without interruption.
In another case, a woman in her 50s who is suffering from AIDS, PTSD and other health impairments was represented at her hearing by third-year student Stephanie Parrado. As a result of a favorable hearing decision the client is now receiving $783.00 a month and will receive approximately $70,000 in retroactive benefits.
Because this represents a significant financial windfall to the client, the clinic students are teaming up with students from the Investor Rights Clinic to assist with financial planning to prevent the loss of eligibility for the ongoing benefits and health care, and to help the client invest the money wisely.
Second-year clinic student Micaela Carou-Baldner, who is leading this effort, said that “students from both clinics are preparing a financial education package not only for this client in particular, but for clients in the future who find themselves expecting a large lump sum payment and need information regarding how to spend those funds without jeopardizing eligibility for subsistence benefits such as SSI, Medicaid, and food stamps. We are really excited about this work. The goal is to not only provide tangible informative financial material, but also to assist clients in managing future spending in order to remain out of debt and within a realistic budget.”
Other successes include third-year Elizabeth Oropesa who, under the supervision of Swain, was able to convince a federal administrative law judge to approve a Social Security disability case on the record for a 61-year-old client with HIV, depression, diabetes, and MRSA who will now receive $1,250.00 a month and $15,203.00 in retroactive benefits.
Second-year Christina Garaway, also working with Swain, won two Social Security cases: a 47-year-old client who suffers from HIV, seizures, and mental health impairments who will receive $522.00 a month and $7,260.00 in retroactive benefit, and a 52-year-old client living with HIV and depression who will receive $934.00 a month and $22,990.00 in retroactive benefits.
Working under the supervisor of Newman and Swain, third-year Edgar Perez Figueroa won a Social Security disability case for a homeless client with HIV, neurocognitive disorders, and depression, who has now secured housing and receives $783.00 a month and $26,768,23 in retroactive benefits.
“The student lawyers in the Health Rights Clinic worked tirelessly in unprecedented times due to COVID-19 to win these cases for their clients,” said Swain. “As brand new student attorneys representing their first client, they have shown true zealous advocacy, resilience, integrity and grit. I am extremely privileged to teach students the importance of fighting for clients who have no one to fight for them. I am exceedingly proud of the students and clinic for providing this incredible legal service to the vulnerable community in Miami, winning over $100,000 for our clients who will now be able to secure housing, healthcare and food.”