Student Perspectives

Fighting For A Veteran Facing the Invisible Wounds of War

Linda Heeyoung Park, JD ‘21, a student in LSC’s Safety Net Project, shares the story of her client, Jay, a veteran who came to LSC for help protecting his disability benefits. 

Jay loved his job as a tower agent with US Airways. Seated high in Logan Airport’s control tower, he guided planes to and from their gates. He was a commander of sorts, a role that was familiar to him from his previous career.

Before working at the airport, Jay served as a Marine.

Linda Heeyoung Park

Linda Heeyoung Park, JD ’21

After being called to active duty in 2004, he quickly climbed up the ranks and, by 2006, became a sergeant. With the other Marines in his unit, he traversed Iraq by Humvee, sending radio signals to different camps through the night. One night in June 2006, everything came to a halt. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED), hidden under the road detonated, destroying the Humvee, injuring the people inside, obliterating Jay’s right leg, and severely damaging his right elbow and his left foot.

When Jay returned stateside for rehabilitation, his body was in shambles. He could no longer extend his right arm and could barely put weight on his broken left foot. The phantom pain from the right leg he lost was intense and perplexing. His right foot, the foot that no longer existed, felt numb.

Pain spurred reflection. “It’s hard to see all the soldiers returning from Iraq,” Jay confessed. “What were we there for? Why did we die?”

Still, Jay persevered. He endured intensive physical therapy, started using prosthetics, and learned to walk again. Most importantly, he learned to accept his disabilities. Within four years, Jay was directing planes for US Airways, starting a new life with his new body.

But Jay’s disabilities followed him like a shadow. Every morning at work, Jay walked up three flights of stairs with no elevators and no railings. He had to stop every other step, leaning against the wall until the shooting pain from his phantom limb subsided. Going to the bathroom during work, which involved going up and down the stairs, was not a possibility. Jay would be drenched in sweat throughout the day from the effort he exerted to complete his work. After two years of enduring the pain, Jay was forced to quit.

This was the story that Jay told me when I met him at our first intake meeting. As he recounted his story, his eyes remained still and his face calm. I tried to reflect his composure, but my mind spiraled. Images of bombs, blood, and hidden tears flashed in front of my eyes. I managed to squeeze out a question.

“So, how can we help you today?”

Jay explained that his disability benefits had been discontinued after he stopped working, because he was no longer considered disabled. Really? I asked him. Even to me, a student only one month into my work on disability benefits cases at LSC’s Safety Net Project, the notion that Jay was not ‘disabled’ in some basic sense seemed absurd.

“I received a bunch of letters years ago,” he said. “I didn’t know what they were saying. Now I know that Social Security Administration (SSA) is discontinuing my benefits. I have a hearing in three weeks.”

Three weeks meant we had no time to spare. I had to dig through thousands of pages of medical records, schedule a meeting with Jay every week leading up to the hearing, and find out why SSA rejected his benefits. I had to get to know Jay and understand his story and his struggles as soon as possible.

Every day at work, I shuffled through the thick stack of Jay’s medical records. Those medical records, especially from Jay’s first few years of rehabilitation, served as Jay’s biography. They revealed in great detail a side of Jay that he did not explicitly present to me: Jay’s life hidden behind the closed doors of hospitals. Words like “depression,” “agoraphobia,” and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” permeated the records.

Thinking about how eloquent and resilient Jay is, I realized that Jay had additional disabilities that were invisible to our eyes. Beneath his thick jeans Jay wore a prosthetic leg. Beneath his skin, Jay was suffering from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Jay woke up in middle of the night, panting and paralyzed by his nightmares. He downed liquor to forget the bright orange flames he saw in his dreams. He jolted when people approached him at work.

SSA neglected to consider Jay’s symptoms. The agency dismissed Jay’s physical disabilities because he worked for a period of time, not knowing the pain he fought through every day. SSA denied Jay his benefits when he needed them most, and failed to consider the other vestiges of war: the emotional injuries he sustained as a Marine.

Jay and I met every week leading up to the hearing. I asked him questions that drew out the stories SSA had ignored. As we both were getting exhausted from the prepping, Jay lamented, “They say, ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ I’ve done my share for the country. I gave it everything. What has the country done for me?” I didn’t know how to answer his question. Jay had served his country, but nobody fought for him when he needed help.

On the hearing day, Jay was wearing his usual jeans and gray jacket. Other than his slight limp, Jay, like always, appeared able-bodied and articulate. The administrative law judge (ALJ) peppered Jay with questions. How are you able to go to school when you’re disabled? What changed in between your time at US Airways and now? Are you really disabled?

Jay solemnly told his story. He advocated for himself, understanding now the relevant experiences that mattered most to the judge. He was vulnerable yet unapologetic. He was brave. He told of the pain hidden underneath the veneer of normalcy and calm. He admitted his reliance on substances and explained the causes for it. After listening to Jay, the judge questioned the vocational expert and let a few seconds of silence pass. Then, she looked at Jay and thanked him.

“I have never done this during my time as an ALJ,” she said. “But I’m going to state on the record that you won your case. Thank you for your service. This country is honored to have a veteran like you.”

When I explained the ALJ’s bench ruling to Jay outside of the courtroom—how he would be awarded his benefits dating back to the date of application in 2012 and would not have to wait anxiously for the decision—Jay simply smiled at the news. Even as my supervisor and I profusely congratulated him, he nodded and thanked us. Then he returned to his beloved two cats and his life.

In retrospect, the long and winding path to Jay’s victory could have been shortened if the system offered Jay the proper assistance when he first needed it. SSA could have acknowledged the seriousness of Jay’s mental injuries. Legal aid organizations could have been more accessible to Jay and his community to help him out in the initial stages of his case. SSA could have not punished recipients for attempting to find work despite their disabilities. Too many systemic barriers impeded Jay from accessing the benefits that he was entitled to and needed.

I read a lot of medical reports for my clients. According to those reports, a doctor diagnoses the problem, comes up with a solution, and communicates with the patient about ways to move forward. Social security benefits attorneys are like doctors. They see the issues in a client’s case, discuss a strategy to tackle the issue, and work with the client to achieve a goal. Just as every patient should be able to see a doctor, every client should be able to see an attorney.

Sometimes, on the Orange Line train back to campus from the Legal Services Center, I’m lucky enough to grab a seat. As I sit down, close my eyes, and allow my thoughts to wander, I often feel crushed by the weight of not only Jay’s, but all my clients’ stories. The stories that rarely get told yet must be heard. The responsibilities that come with knowing the stories. Sometimes these stories consume me, and I have to sneakily wipe away the tears. How unprofessional, I think to myself.

The day Jay and I won the case, I cried unabashedly on the train. A lady who sat next to me offered tissues. She asked if I was okay, and I explained through the tears that my client won his case. She congratulated me. She told me that I would be a good lawyer. Listening to her, I realized that I do want to be the lawyer that she envisioned me as. I want to be a lawyer who treats every story with the significance it deserves and who gives it its proper stage.

Linda Heeyoung Park is a 2L student at Harvard Law School. This is her first semester working with LSC’s Safety Net Project.

LSC Student Argues Tax Case in Federal Court

Through Harvard Law School’s Federal Tax Clinic, students have the unique opportunity represent low-income taxpayers in disputes with the IRS, both before the IRS and in federal court. Working individually and in teams, they represent taxpayers involving examinations, administrative appeals collection matters, and cases before the United States Tax Court and federal district courts.

In this video, we follow Adeyemi “Yemi” Adediran ’21, a second year student in the Clinic, as he prepares to argue an appeal on behalf of a military veteran with PTSD in the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago. The veteran’s appeal to the Seventh Circuit centered on his eligibility for innocent spouse relief under the Internal Revenue Code. Over a three year period, the veteran’s wife embezzled $500K from the Appleton, Wisconsin Blood Bank—where she worked as a bookkeeper. She was arrested and sentenced to jail, but because the couple filed taxes jointly and embezzled money is taxable, they were both legally responsible for back taxes on the money.

As an important part of his preparation, Adediran participated in a mooting session before a panel of “judges” including Keith Fogg, clinical professor and director of the Federal Tax Clinic, and Clinical Professor Daniel Nagin, vice dean for experiential and clinical education and faculty director of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center at Harvard Law School (LSC), of which the Tax Clinic is a part.

You can read more about the Federal Tax Clinic and other LSC clinics and services at legalservicescenter.org.

This post was published by Harvard Law Today on November 14, 2019.

Alum Brings Innovative Consumer Protection Project to LSC

Emily Wilkinson, JD ’17 shares how her time as a student in LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic influences her work as an attorney and motivated her to return to LSC as a Skadden Fellow. 

Emily Wilkinson first came through the doors of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC) as a law student. Before law school, Wilkinson worked as a paralegal at a Washington, DC-based civil rights law firm whose practice focused on fair lending, fair housing, and credit discrimination. The experience sparked Wilkinson’s interest in consumer protection as a civil rights issue and illuminated the lasting effects predatory lending and lack of legal representation can have in the lives of low-income individuals and families.

When she arrived at Harvard Law School (HLS) in 2014, Wilkinson quickly immersed herself in public interest work, joining the Tenant Advocacy Project, a student practice organization that works to protect the rights of public housing tenants. Her interest in lending fairness and justice brought her to LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic.

Emily Wilkinson

Emily Wilkinson JD ’17

Wilkinson relished the hands-on experience she gained at the clinic, and the opportunity to interact directly with clients and learn the day-to-day realities of working in a community-based law office. During her first semester in the clinic, she worked on a case involving a lender that had issued predatory and illegal loans with interest rates exceeding 100 percent, a violation of state law. The case was later taken up by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and ended with a settlement that provided $2 million in debt relief for low-income consumers, including many disabled veterans. The California-based lender in the case, Future Income Payments, was barred from making future loans in Massachusetts, a result that clearly demonstrates the broad and lasting impact of LSC’s consumer advocacy work.

In her two semesters as a clinical student, Wilkinson gained experience at the elemental skills of being a lawyer—interviewing clients, conducting legal research, drafting demand letters and court filings, preparing arguments, and representing clients in state and federal court. Through her work on behalf of clients and her participation in the Consumer Protection and Predatory Lending Clinic’s seminar—where students reviewed and discussed topics and cases relevant to their practice and the clinic’s work—Wilkinson learned of the pressing access-to-justice issues faced by consumers in the Massachusetts court system, issues that would serve as the basis for her future work.

In Massachusetts, where the National Consumer Law Center estimates that 23 percent of residents have at least one debt in collections, private debt collectors and their attorneys have been allowed to manipulate the court system to their advantage, intimidate consumers into signing unjust agreements with predatory terms, and even operate outside the law without consequence.

After graduating and completing a year-long clerkship at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Wilkinson was selected for a Skadden Fellowship, which supports early-career attorneys to work full-time at civil rights and legal services organizations around the country. For her fellowship, Wilkinson decided to return to LSC, designing a fellowship project to increase access to justice for Boston-area consumers facing debt collection. Although Wilkinson finds herself in LSC’s Jamaica Plain office with a new title, she’s driven by the same fundamental purpose that brought her to HLS to begin with, to pursue justice on behalf of consumers whose futures are threatened by predatory debt collectors.

Wilkinson’s work focuses on individual representation of low- and moderate-income consumers facing debt collection in small claims court, district court, and Boston Municipal Court. She has deliberately chosen to represent clients with smaller debts—ranging anywhere from $300 to several thousand dollars. “While it might not sound like a lot relative to other debts, a debt like that is a life-changing amount of money for many, many people, especially those who can’t afford legal representation,” she explained.

Going to court can be a confusing and intimidating process for anyone, but is especially challenging for low- and moderate-income consumers who have no legal help and who might have limited literacy and English-language skills. The system is ripe for abuse, and court officers exacerbate the existing power imbalance, directing consumers to negotiate with debt collectors’ attorneys before the case is even heard by a judge.

Small claims court, originally intended as a space for the efficient resolution of conflicts between individuals, has effectively been taken over by debt buying companies, many from out of state, who flood the court with debt collection cases. According to the Midas Collaborative, in 2015 alone, debt collectors filed over 66,000 cases in Massachusetts small claims and district courts. Unfortunately for Massachusetts consumers, these companies and their lawyers aren’t always required to provide evidence of the validity of the debt before a judgment is entered.

When consumers don’t appear in court to fight a debt collection lawsuit, which happens in the majority of debt cases in Massachusetts, a default judgment is entered. This default judgment—enforceable for 20 years—records the consumer as legally owing the debt and allows debt collectors to charge 12 percent interest and even garnish wages to collect payment. LSC’s Consumer Protection and Predatory Lending Clinic has been involved in legislative advocacy around these practices, supporting statewide efforts to decrease the lifespan of and interest rate for judgments, among other protections.

One of Wilkinson’s cases that is emblematic of the challenges consumers face in Massachusetts courts is that of Elizabeth,* a woman with a disability who was defending against a debt collector seeking more than $25,000. The out-of-state company that filed the case refused to produce documentation that they were legally permitted to collect debt in Massachusetts. Finally, after months of pressure, they agreed to settle the case, with no financial liability for Elizabeth. If not for Wilkinson’s work, a judgment may have been entered against Elizabeth, saddling her with years of debt and accumulating interest she could not pay, and the company would have continued to prey on vulnerable consumers unchallenged.

In addition to defending individual clients when they are sued, Wilkinson undertakes affirmative claims when debt collectors aren’t following state and federal laws related to debt collection practices, working to enforce the laws that are already in place to protect the state’s consumers.

She also conducts community education, giving presentations to consumer advocacy organizations and community groups about consumer rights, common debt collection defenses and rules debt collectors are required to follow, with the goal of having more people show up to court and avoid the lasting consequences that come with default judgments. She also plans to start a Lawyer for the Day program in small claims court, similar to the one that exists in Boston Housing Court and elsewhere, which would provide legal advice to unrepresented litigants facing debt collection.

Roger Bertling, Director of LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic, who first supervised Wilkinson when she was a law student, says that having her back in the office is an asset for clients and colleagues alike. “It’s always great to have a former student join our staff at LSC, especially one as dedicated, thoughtful and hard-working as Emily. Since her first day as a clinical student, she has been a great advocate for her clients and a joy to work with.”

For Wilkinson, returning to LSC to work on consumer law issues allows her to enhance what she learned as a student, be responsible for her own slate of cases while benefiting from the expertise of LSC’s experienced attorneys, and find new ways to protect consumers in court and by changing policy. Said Wilkinson, “Being a relatively new lawyer and having the support of such knowledgeable attorneys and teachers here at LSC is an experience you can’t get anywhere else. It allows me to do my best work for clients.”

* Name has been change to protect client privacy.

LSC Hosts Samaritans Inc. for Presentation on Suicide Prevention

Written by: Ellie Schelleng

It may be no exaggeration to say we are experiencing a suicide epidemic. Suicide is increasing at an alarming rate and, as a result, we are living in a time of heightened awareness. According to the CDC, suicide rates have increased in nearly every state from 1999 to 2016. In half those states, the suicide rate has increased by more than 30%. Some of the most at risk populations are veterans, LGBTQ+ youth, and middle-aged white men (who account for 70% of suicides).  Often, spikes in rates of death by suicide can alert observers to underlying issues, such as opioid abuse. In late 2018, a rise in suicides among New York City taxi and ride-hail drivers sparked a New York Times investigation. Charged an exorbitant amount for their taxi medallions and given predatory loans to pay for them, eight New York City drivers felt that suicide was their only option. Members of our Consumer Protection Clinic are currently litigating the consumer protection violations of these predatory loans on behalf of several taxi drivers.

Man at vigil for taxi driver suicides

A taxi driver at a vigil for Roy Kim, a driver who died by suicide late last year. Picture from the New York Times.

Cab drivers are just one of many populations with an elevated risk of suicide. The CDC has listed physical health and legal, money, or housing stresses as major contributors to suicide risk. All of our clients are facing a combination of those stresses and many face additional risk factors. For example, many of our clients are veterans; the suicide rate of veterans is 1.5 times higher than that of civilians. Domestic violence survivors also make up a large portion of our clients. Approximately one in four domestic violence survivors attempt suicide; in the general population, the rate is three out of one hundred.

Our clients aren’t the only people we’re concerned about. When ranked by profession, lawyers have the fourth highest incidence of suicide. They also have other risk factors like higher rates of mental illness and intense stress from peer competition and high stakes cases. It’s not just our attorneys that we are concerned about. Most of our office is staffed by law students and undergraduate legal interns. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among undergraduates and 40% of law students suffer from depression after three years of law school.

Kendra McDonald of Samaritans, Inc.

Kendra McDonald, the Community Education and Outreach Coordinator of Samaritans, Inc.

We are acutely aware that suicide is a growing problem in our community and as advocates need to be well-informed for our clients’ sakes. So, on Monday, July 1st, the Safety Net Project invited Kendra McDonald from Samaritans, Inc, a Boston based suicide prevention organization, to talk to us about how we can prevent suicide in our community. Kendra, who we met at the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair, is the Community Education and Outreach Coordinator with Samaritans. Inc.

Kendra went over the warning signs and risk factors to look for in our clients and peers, giving some great tips on how to talk to people who express suicidal thoughts or who show other warning signs. Kendra also underscored how tough it is to be in our position: seeing someone in crisis takes an intense emotional toll. Kendra used part of her presentation to encourage us to perform some self-care, saying “Each of you should spend at least an hour today doing some self-care, whatever that looks like for you.”

 

Self-care graphic from presentation

A graphic from Kendra’s presentation to remind us all that self-care is a daily activity and that it looks different for all of us.

All of our interns felt that this presentation was deeply important, even though it was at times hard. Sydnie Tiseo, an intern with the Veterans Justice Project, summarized it best, saying: “It’s easy to glaze over because we don’t like talking about it, but it’s an important topic to be reminded of.” Daniel McCarthy of the Estate Planning Project said, “It’s easy to forget how difficult our client’s situation is; it’s helpful to understand what our clients are going through.” Dan also mentioned how the presentation has changed his client interactions: “It’s prompted me to be on the look-out for mental health issues and suicidal thoughts in my clients.” Sydnie, who sits next to Dan, chimed in: “It’s also applicable to friends too.” One of the goals of this presentation was to help us become more comfortable with peer intervention. Katrina Fisher, an undergraduate with the Estate Planning Project, has already taken that to heart. “It’s helpful to know before going into the profession,” she said, “I’m paying more attention so I can see the signs and I’m listening to what the law students’ friends are doing that’s dangerous behavior; I’m more aware now of the risks for lawyers.”

Emily Skahill, an intern in the Safety Net Project, found the presentation really useful in pointing out ways to respond to people in crisis. “There was an emphasis on reaffirming their experiences and how we have these normal human responses that aren’t helpful in that situation.” Nikolas Paladino, also from the Safety Net Project, expressed a similar opinion. “In this line of work, I’m very logical and I’m often trying to fix problems that my clients bring up. Part of what Kendra was saying was that you don’t have to fix all of their problems. Sometimes people are just venting because they need to vent.”

For one of our interns, suicide hits particularly close to home. Arielle Lui of the Safety Net Project is a student at Claremont McKenna College, which had two deaths by suicides this past spring semester. “At bigger universities, they’ll send out an email saying ‘Someone died,’ but we’re such a small campus that it’s different. You know where they lived, you can walk to the room they were in when they died,” she said. “The administration didn’t really know how to handle it, so they just tried to move on as if nothing happened,” she went on. Ari added that friends of the victims on her campus felt like they had seen these deaths coming and that the presentation was the most comprehensive discussion and walkthrough on how to help people in crisis that she had ever had. In the end, Ari had this to say: “There is nothing more important than life and preserving that.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are worried about a loved one, call or text Samaritans at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673). You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Presentation slide with resources

One of the final slides of Kendra’s presentation, with local and national suicide helplines and emergency services providers.

 

Take Care of Soldiers, and Things Fall Into Place

This post, by Joshua Mathew, J.D. ’19, was first posted on the Office of Clinical Programs blog.

Josh Mathew

Josh Mathew JD’19

My involvement with the Veterans Legal Clinic (VLC) has been, by far, my most rewarding experience at Harvard Law School. Through the VLC, I supported diverse cases, developed a broad range of legal skills, found my passion for advocating for others as a litigator, and made some of my closest friends at Harvard.

A Broad Range of Cases and Skills

As a student advocate with the VLC, I worked on a variety of matters, including an Army veteran’s appeal of the VA’s denial of his G.I. Bill benefits, a former Marine’s application for VA healthcare and an honorable characterization of his service, and oral arguments on behalf of Massachusetts veterans who were wrongfully denied the Welcome Home Bonus. In addition, my work with the VLC and conversations with instructors at Harvard’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic motivated me to pursue independent research, under Professor Dan Nagin’s supervision, on California’s regulations aimed at guarding veterans against exploitation by for-profit colleges.

My diverse caseload at the VLC allowed me to build a set of skills that I know will make me a more effective advocate for others. Drafting the appeal for my client’s G.I. Bill benefits enabled me to develop my legal writing and research skills. Presenting oral arguments in the Welcome Home Bonus case with my classmate Laurel Fresquez ’19 substantially improved our oral appellate advocacy skills. We learned how to organize a concise outline of arguments and incorporate feedback from numerous moots. And throughout all of my cases, I developed my ability to interact with clients, solicit their intent, and ensure that our case strategy reflected their long-term goals and interests.

From left to right, Jack Regan, Dana Montalto, Josh Mathew, Laurel Fresquez ’19, a client in the case, and Dan Nagin.

Helping Ensure That All Are Welcomed Home

Presenting oral arguments with Laurel in the Welcome Home Bonus case at Suffolk Superior Court was certainly my favorite experience at the VLC. You can read more about the case and the favorable ruling here and here. Preparing for the hearing served as a reminder that no one gets there alone: Laurel and I spent countless hours brainstorming and debating how to craft the most effective opening and closing arguments. We rehearsed those arguments over and over again in front of our supervisors, others VLC students, and WilmerHale attorneys. These moots and the VLC’s supportive community of instructors, students, and friends provided the feedback that we needed to identify our most powerful arguments and address our blind spots.

Engaging with our clients was also a treat. When we received a positive decision from the judge in late December, it was a pleasure for me and Laurel to call our clients with the good news. Those phone calls, full of gratitude and warmth, are some of my fondest memories at Harvard Law.

Finding Purpose and Friends

Lastly, the VLC has had tremendous personal benefits for me. When I left the Army, I saw law school as a reset switch, and I did not have a clear vision of what I wanted to do as a lawyer. I enrolled in the VLC, in part, to find that purpose. A wise platoon sergeant had once advised me, “Take care of soldiers, and everything else falls into place.” As a platoon leader, I found deep satisfaction in supporting my soldiers, and through the VLC, I have found similar fulfillment in supporting veterans’ claims for education, healthcare, and disability benefits. In addition, through challenging and meaningful casework, I have discovered my passion for litigation as a means of advocating for others.

In the process, I have made some of my closest friends at Harvard Law. It might be that the Legal Services Center attracts exceptionally kind students, or that its instructors do a great job of fostering a supportive environment. In any case, I am grateful to have gained that community, and I look forward to staying in touch.

Learning by Doing: A Student’s Perspective from LSC’s Safety Net Project

By Bryan Sohn

Before law school, I spent four years working in the education and non-profit world. By the end of my 1L year, I was feeling frustrated about being trapped in the “HLS bubble.” Without a doubt, my courses were fascinating and my professors wonderful. But I felt disconnected. And so I decided to seek out clinics. I considered the education law and child advocacy clinics but realized that I should branch out beyond my comfort zone. I signed up for the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic at the Legal Services Center (LSC) in large part because it reminded me of my students (from my high school teaching days) who have gone on to join the armed forces. And I ended up making the best decision of my law school career so far. My time at the clinic has been extraordinarily formative: in fact, the wonderful team at LSC couldn’t get rid of me and I’m now back for a second semester as an advanced clinical student!

Bryan Sohn photo

Bryan Sohn, center, pictured with attorney David Young (left) and LSC Tax Clinic Director Keith Fogg at LSC’s 40th Anniversary on April 5, 2019.

The Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic is divided into three projects: the Veterans Justice Project, the Estate Planning Project, and the Safety Net Project. I signed up for the Safety Net Project, which focuses primarily on Social Security benefits litigation. My wonderful supervisor, Julie McCormack, wasted no time in throwing me straight into the deep end. On my first day at the LSC, I was informed that I had a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ) the following week: I needed to get up to speed on Social Security law and draft that 15-page brief right away!

I quickly learned that this is a huge part of what makes the Safety Net Project and the Veterans Law Clinic so special. There is very little hand-holding. Students learn by doing. I was expected to the take the lead in building client relationships, building up medical records, and defining case strategies. Once I got staffed on a new case, I would spend several days wrestling with the facts and the law, shuttling back and forth between my carrel and Julie’s office. I would take the lead, but Julie was always available to share her support, wisdom, and incredible feedback despite having (at least) a gazillion other cases on her docket. Rinse and repeat. In my first semester, I ended up handling four ALJ hearings and three cases at the Appeals Council. The experience has supercharged my legal research and writing skills. I like to describe the LSC as a high-powered litigation boutique with a twist. Students take full responsibility for their cases and learn by tackling their cases head-on. But it’s a litigation boutique where the partners actually care about you. In fact, they are there precisely to support you. And most importantly, it’s a firm where the work itself is extraordinarily meaningful.

Above all, I will continue to treasure the relationships that I’ve built with our clients. My time at LSC has taught me what it means to lawyer as friend. So many moments come to mind: giving our client a hug after she broke down at the end of a successful hearing, finding out that a client who had suffered through post-traumatic stress disorder and over two dozen reconstructive surgeries would not lose her home because she had just won her benefits, and so much more. I’m so incredibly grateful to our clients for giving me the opportunity to be a part of their stories.

In my second semester at the clinic, I have continued to handle ALJ and Appeals Council cases. I am also partnering with a student at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau as we prepare to argue a Social Security appeal at federal district court. Briefs have been submitted and oral argument is scheduled for September. I am incredibly excited to continue my LSC journey and get our clients the results that they deserve!

Innocent Spouse Relief in a Tax Case

By: Oladeji M. Tiamiyu J.D. ’20

Tim* never could imagine how complicated his taxes would become. A disabled veteran following physical injuries from military service, Tim found a steady job. He later discovered his former wife embezzled a large sum of money from her employer.

Embezzlement, though illegal, is subject to similar tax requirements as other forms of income. Since the late 1930s, individuals filing joint tax returns are jointly liable for omitted income or understatements on a tax return. The creation of innocent spouse relief revealed a clear Congressional intent to sever joint liability when one’s spouse accrues unlawful taxable income without the other’s knowledge. The relevant statutory recognition of innocent spouse relief is Section 6015 of the Internal Revenue Code, specifically sections 6015(c) and 6015(f). Section 6015(c) allows divorced or separated individuals to be responsible only for the portion of joint tax liabilities that is attributable to their activity. Section 6015(f) is an equitable vehicle that uses the totality of circumstances to consider whether innocent spouse relief should be granted.

The IRS was initially willing to grant Tim innocent spouse relief until his wife alleged during divorce proceedings that he had known of her embezzlement. As a result, the IRS assessed Tim a liability of over $100,000 in taxes, interest, and penalties.

Tim’s case has now reached the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Although granting innocent spouse relief for one year, the tax court denied relief following his former wife’s criminal conviction. In denying that relief, the tax court overlooked a host of important factors that weighed in his favor. The 7th Circuit will need to better balance the government’s interest in collecting taxes with the equitable principal of relief for individuals lacking knowledge of illegal income accrued by a spouse.

Tim’s background and his actions show that he did not have knowledge of the embezzlement.  His former wife handled their financial matters, while Tim had limited knowledge and experience in finance, accounting, and taxes. In addition, there is no evidence that he ever knew of her criminal conviction before the return in dispute was filed. He provided his financial information to her tax preparer.

Helping Tim receive the relief he deserves has been a great legal experience. Most of my work focused on writing the legal brief that will be submitted to the 7th Circuit, participating in mediation with the Tax Division of the Department of Justice, and communicating with our client to set procedural expectations. The government shutdown added complexities to our work because the mediation process was delayed. I am humbled by the procedural and substantive legal issues that my co-law student advocate—Rocky Li ‘20—and I have had exposure to. We have benefited from working with Keith Fogg and Carlton Smith, our clinical supervisors who are also among the nation’s leading tax experts. If Tim does not settle, our team is optimistic that the 7th Circuit will recognize the injustice he has been subjected to.

Oladeji M. Tiamiyu is a 2L at Harvard Law School. This post was published by the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs on April 12, 2019.

*Name and some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

Harvard Gazette: LSC puts compassion into action

By Clea Simon.

Published by the Harvard Gazette on April 11, 2019.  Photos by Heratch Ekmekjian.

Legal Services Center Faculty Director Daniel Nagin speaks on a panel with LSC Tax Clinic Director Keith Fogg, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, ArchCity Defenders Executive Director Blake Strode, and disability rights advocate Haben Girma.

“Reaching out to others is how you find out who you really are,” said Daniel Nagin, vice dean of experiential and clinical education and faculty director of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (HLS). He was quoting the late HLS Professor Gary Bellow, LL.B. ’60, who in 1979 co-founded the Jamaica Plain center with his wife, senior lecturer in law Jeanne Charn, J.D. ’70. On April 5, Nagin and others celebrated the center’s 40th anniversary, and the quote strikes at the heart of the center’s mission of improving the legal profession through experiential learning while working with community organizations to enact real and lasting change.

Transformational change may be possible only through such a cooperative effort, said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey ’92. Giving the keynote address at the celebration, she pointed out that not only have more than 40,000 people used the center’s services over the years — people “who were shown an opportunity to have a life-changing experience” — but also approximately 4,500 students have worked there. “Students who have learned to see life, experience life, through the circumstances of another,” she said.

The Legal Services Center — or, as Bellow has described it in the past, the “teaching law office” — is similar to the teaching hospital model used in medical schools across the country, including at Harvard, and it has helped change the lives of thousands of clients in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and other neighborhoods in Boston and beyond. Its programs address issues related to housing, domestic violence, predatory lending, and other community needs. The center offers clinics that specialize in areas including federal taxes, estate planning, and accessing veterans’ benefits. Its reach is broad and its results can often be life-changing.

During the 2017–18 academic year, HLS students provided pro bono legal assistance to more than 4,000 clients in Massachusetts, including more than 2,300 residents in the Boston area. The graduating class of 2018 contributed 376,532 hours of pro bono legal assistance, an average of 637 hours per student over their three years at the Law School. This is part of the effort to, in the words of HLS Dean John F. Manning, “make sure we’re always on the cutting edge of clinical education.”

The day’s events showed how this interaction can work. In the first of a series of roundtable discussions on how to narrow the gap between rich and poor and achieve justice for the most vulnerable, “#Connect: A Law Student and Client Discuss Collaboration” featured 2L student D Dangaran and a client recalling how they had worked together, under the guidance of Stephanie Davidson, J.D. ’13, a clinical instructor in the domestic violence and family law clinic. The client had been in the process of freeing herself from an abusive relationship when she met Dangaran, and had already obtained a temporary restraining order against her husband that allowed her and her children to stay in the family home. When Dangaran met her, the order was once again up for review — and her husband had already been arrested for violating it.

“My second week in the clinic and it was the biggest trial of the clinic,” recalled Dangaran. But the client was calm, assured by the student’s focus. “[Dangaran] already knew my case as if they’d been with us the entire time,” she said. “I was very comfortable, and it took a lot of my nerves away.”

Sameer Ashar, Vice Dean for Experiential Education and Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law; Luz Hererra, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Experiential Education, Texas A&M University School of Law; Jeanne Charn; Sarah Boonin, Clinical Professor of Law and Associate Director of Clinical Programs, Suffolk University; Jeff Selbin, Clinical Professor of Law; Faculty Director, Policy Advocacy Clinic; and Co-Faculty Director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, Berkeley Law

The preparation that went into the case paid off. The husband didn’t show for the hearing, and the client and Dangaran were called to the bench. The judge granted a permanent restraining order “before we even asked,” said Dangaran.

Charn, who was the center’s director for 28 years, served as the institutional memory for the next panel, “#Spark: The Influence of the Bellow-Charn Model on Legal Education.” The center’s beginning, she said, was rocky. “Almost no one supported what we were doing.”Committed to social justice, the center initially took students from several law schools and recruited experts from other institutions, such as MIT, to help them not only win cases but understand the underlying problems. If design could help a landlord maintain apartments, they would bring in designers, she said. “We were at ground level.”

The discussion then progressed to how the Bellow-Charn approach works. Moderator Sarah Boonin, J.D. ’04, now a professor at Suffolk University Law School, said the model was built on the idea that clinics should be immersed in the community they serve because “the community was also a teacher.” For Jeffrey Selbin, J.D. ’89, a professor at UC-Berkeley and director of its Policy Advocacy Clinic, the teaching element was immediately key. “When I walked to the center on my very first day, I was told, ‘You have a client in room one.’” The case involved Social Security benefits for a woman in her 50s. “She just looked at me and said, ‘You’ve never done this before.’ Then she said, ‘I’ve never done this before, either. It’ll be just fine,’ which was an early lesson in ‘client as teacher.’”

Martha Minow; Brandon German, community organizer; Nnena Odim, Director of LSC’s Family Law/Domestic Violence Clinic; Robert Greenwald, Faculty Director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation.

The next discussion, “#Uplift: Using the Law for Economic Justice,” began by asking what had inspired the panelists to make a career seeking economic justice. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, J.D. ’09, shared his frustration as a Peace Corps volunteer unable to alleviate the grinding poverty of Haitian sugarcane cutters in the Dominican Republic. Haben Girma, J.D. ’13, who has limited vision and hearing, recounted being turned away from a summer job once her potential employer met her. Today, Girma, who was named White House Champion of Change by President Barack Obama, advocates for equal opportunities for people with disabilities.

For Blake Strode, J.D. ’15, the spark came even earlier. Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis, remembered a classmate in his elementary school, an immigrant from Cameroon, who was relentlessly teased for her poverty and accent until he finally gathered the courage to sit with her at lunch and speak up for her.

“It was my first experience of seeing what it meant to stand with someone as they are enduring injustice,” said Strode, who later in the day was presented with the Bellow-Charn Championship of Justice Emerging Leader Award.“That’s the role of the social justice lawyer,” he concluded, “to create community and stop that oncoming train.”

Students’ Legal Skills Help Prevent Homelessness

William* was feeling hopeless. Elderly, disabled, and receiving treatment for a recent kidney transplant, he was stunned when his landlord unexpectedly served him with a no-fault notice of eviction. With his health failing in the dead of a frigid Boston winter, he suddenly faced the alarming prospect of living on the streets.

Yet when it looked like all was lost, William experienced a spectacular reversal of fortune. He walked into Edward D. Brooke Courthouse in Boston and obtained free legal assistance from a student of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC), who was participating in the clinic’s ‘Attorney for the Day’ program.

Moments after William approached the Attorney for the Day booth that March day, LSC Housing Court student Nicolette Roger ‘19 went right to work; she reviewed the facts of his case and counseled him on how to advocate for himself in court.

A roll of the dice

It was not an easy task. According to Roger, his case “was a roll of the dice.” William was scheduled to be evicted from his home that same day; he had exceeded a deadline that a judge had given him to find new housing.

William had been struggling to manage the situation not only because of his extensive hospital stay after the transplant, but also due to the fact that, like 95 percent of low-income tenants who find themselves in Housing Court, he had no attorney to represent him.

He is precisely the type of Bostonian that Attorney for the Day aims to reach. Organized by the Boston Bar Association (BBA), the program draws attorneys from local legal services organizations as well as volunteers from the area’s leading firms.

The BBA advertises that these services are available at Boston Housing Court every Thursday morning, though many community members find out about the program by word of mouth or simply happen upon the sign and table on the day of their hearing.

The guidance that tenants receive can make a huge difference. Roger explains that for someone like William who has no familiarity with the legal system, “even just navigating the courthouse can be difficult,” much less winning a case as a pro se tenant.

While the Attorney for the Day program is a transformative learning opportunity for students, it is life-changing for clients like William, who receive last-minute, ‘game-day’ counsel.

“One of my favorite experiences at Harvard”

Tom Snyder ‘18, who was participating in Attorney for the Day with the LSC for the first time last spring before graduation, attests that it is an incredibly challenging and demanding experience, but also one so rewarding that “it’s been one of my favorite experiences at Harvard.”

The program is overseen by the Director of the Housing Law Clinic, Maureen McDonagh. Students’ responsibilities at Attorney for the Day typically begin with ensuring that clients are in the courtroom at the proper time to respond when the judge does roll call. This is crucial because if the client is not present, the judge will issue a default judgment – an outcome that will likely lead to eviction.

“You’re definitely thrown right in,” explains Tyra Walker ‘18.

While the student attorney is often needed inside the courtroom to help a client file a motion or address a judge, frequently the work takes place in the adjacent hallway or in the mediation room, where negotiations between tenant and the landlord’s attorney occur.

In these cases, students must quickly learn about the client’s situation, assess whether defenses or counterclaims exist, and, where appropriate, determine how to reach an agreement with the landlord.

Righting a power imbalance

The students’ presence is crucial because often, a striking power imbalance is at play. Over 95 percent of landlords enter the courtroom with an attorney, while only 5 percent of low-income renters have that same protection.

When tenants lack representation, it is typically the case that “the landlord’s attorneys have more negotiating power, and clients end up agreeing to terms they can’t adhere to,” according to Kelsey Annu-Essuman ‘19.

Clients like William could easily slip through the cracks without the help from students. There were 127 cases on trial that day, and just two judges and five mediators present.

For many HLS students, this high-stakes environment is the first in which they will be responsible for representing a client in a dispute with real-world consequences. The situation is distinctly challenging because they have just a fraction of the time that Housing Court students typically would to secure a favorable outcome for the client.

Last-minute intervention of the sort that Attorney for the Day provides can be a lifeline for a tenant in a tough situation and can play a vital role in preventing homelessness. Still, the majority of cases handled by Housing Clinic students involve full representation of low-income tenants in complex and ongoing litigation, rather than emergency advice.

Indeed, for the students, Attorney for the Day is a highly educative and memorable experience precisely because it is so different from the in-depth, long-term work that students normally do in the Clinic – instead, just an hour in the courthouse can save a client from homelessness.

“You don’t get a lot of these experiences in law school,” affirms Walker, a three-time veteran of Attorney for the Day.

Using legal training in high-stakes courtroom experience

During Attorney for the Day, students work toward the same outcomes as they do during the semester – preventing eviction, improving housing conditions, halting utilities shutdown — but in this case, they have the opportunity to effect change behind the scenes, and very quickly.

Roger seized this opportunity when she prepped William to stand in front of the judge and request an extension on his timeline to pursue alternatives.

She explained to him what was about to happen and provided William with talking points. He listened intently, and when the time came he explained to the judge that because of his kidney transplant and severe medical problems, he had not yet found a new place. Moreover, he explained, in his condition homelessness would equate to a certain health catastrophe. In setting forth all this, William – again, relying on the advice Roger had shared – successfully documented the efforts he had made to date to obtain housing.

The appeal was successful. The judge offered William a one-month stay of eviction, given that he provided ample evidence of his ongoing housing search.

Roger, McDonagh, and other members of the Housing Clinic team made sure to follow up and help William with the search. Shortly thereafter, he took the first steps through the doorway of his affordable new housing unit, with time to spare.

*Name and some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

 

Student Reflections on Working at LSC

In two recent posts on the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ Blog, former Estate Planning clinic students Stephanie Jimenez and Travis Leverett discuss their experiences working on estate planning issues. Read both Stephanie’s post, “Empowering clients through the Estate Planning Project” and Travis’ post, “A reflection on my semester with the Estate Planning Project“.

In addition, former  Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic  students Suria Bahadue and Alison Burton share their experiences with family and domestic violence issues in the following posts: “Out of the classroom and into the courtroom” by Suria Bahadue and “A sense of community and a chance to represent clients in court” by Alison Burton.