Jessica Dragonetti ( JD ‘15) became involved with the Social Security Disability Project (SSDP) in her first year of law school, and since then has represented at least two clients at their administrative hearings – winning one matter, which she describes below. Jessica is currently an advanced Community Law Clinic student and a senior board member with the SSDP.
You’re not supposed to have favorite clients, but I have to admit that the client I just represented in his Social Security Income (SSI) hearing has a special place in my heart. Maybe because we’ve been working together ever since I was a 1L and because it’s been a thrill to see his case through to a successful conclusion. Maybe it’s because his good cheer and calm are inspirational to me given what he’s faced in his life. Anyway, here’s the story.
I first met my client in February of my 1L year, when I was participating in the Social Security Disability Project, one of Stanford Law School’s pro bono programs. He had recently been paroled, and in addition to the typical challenges of transitioning from prison, he faced another one: an injury-related disability that prevented him from working. Between his felon status and his disability, the client knew that he would likely never get a job. We worked together on his initial application for disability benefits; when it was denied a few months later, we filed together his request for reconsideration. I wasn’t in the clinic last spring, so Community Law Clinic (CLC) Attorney Lisa Douglass represented him before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearing; due to inadequate medical documentation, the judge ordered an additional examination by a Social Security doctor and a continuance. That’s how, as an advanced CLC student in the fall quarter, I was able to re-join the team and to continue my advocacy of this client.
I like this client a lot. Early on, I admired his sense of calm amid all the turmoil in his life. Because of his injury, he cannot do many of the things he used to do: fix cars and houses, lift a cup of coffee, walk more than a block, stand in the DMV line. He spends his nights shuttling to sleep between his truck and shelters. He waits many months to be seen at the public orthopedics clinic. And yet he is quiet, self-contained, and funny, rather than defeated. If only law school students were so equanimous.
A couple of weeks ago, I represented him at the supplemental hearing before the same ALJ who had heard the case in March. Armed with new medical evidence of my client’s physical impairments, we won a bench decision granting him ongoing and retroactive benefits. According to our client, this money will change his life. He can use the back benefits to repair his truck, and the steady disability income will enable him to provide for himself and to finally qualify for affordable housing.
I am glad we won; glad that I did not fail him. I am also grateful that he trusted us to help him with something so important. Among the many gifts of clinical education are these miraculous relationships with clients, the placing of enormous faith in us as not-quite-yet lawyers. This generous faith, in turn, prompts us to strive harder to deserve it. It causes us to be ecstatic – as I was – when we do right by the people we pledge to serve. ◊