PUBLISHED:October 18, 2012

Children’s Law Clinic advocacy relieves family of $23,000 claim

Jane Wettach with student

Students in Duke’s Children’s Law Clinic helped a Hillsborough mother with two disabled children drastically reduce the amount of money she owed the Social Security Administration (SSA) as the result of that agency’s overpayment. Mike Connelly ’11, Ceretta Amos ’11, and Hallie Fisher ’14, navigated a complex two-year process though administrative law courts and the SSA’s Appeals Council, ultimately reducing the family’s debt by almost $23,000.

In October 2010, Marilyn Johnson (whose named has been changed for this story) received correspondence from the SSA that she owed $23,234 because of an overpayment in benefits for her children. Shocked and overwhelmed, she eventually found her way to the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke Law School. Multiple appeals later, she and her clinic representatives finally got the good word: Instead of owing $23,234, she owed $441.

Connelly was the first student assigned to the case. An aspiring tax lawyer, he appreciated being able to handle a case that would likely involve work that could inform his future practice. He interviewed Johnson and learned that she had been receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for her two disabled children for more than five years. Because SSI benefits are payable only to low-income families, Johnson had been meticulous about reporting the family’s income to the SSA and kept detailed records of her communications with the agency.

After a thorough investigation and study of the arcane rules of SSI benefit calculation, Connelly scheduled a personal conference with the local SSA office to review the situation and provide all of the family’s records. He was prepared to prove that the family was not at fault in the overpayment and could not afford to pay it back. If these two prongs are established, the SSA is required to waive the claim, meaning that it wouldn’t have to be paid back. Connelly accompanied Johnson to the Social Security office, but when they got there, the SSA representative refused to meet with them, saying her computer said the appointment was to take a new application.

Connelly filed an appeal to an administrative law judge as his time in the clinic was coming to an end. Amos then took over the case just as another roadblock appeared: the administrative law judge dismissed the appeal, determining that he had no jurisdiction because there had been no personal conference at the local level.

Amos then filed another appeal, this time to the SSA’s Appeals Council, the highest administrative level in the system. In the extensive written appeal, she argued that the family had followed every instruction of the SSA, and that it was the SSA that had both miscalculated the benefits and then refused to hold the personal conference about the waiver request. She asked the Appeals Council to either reinstate the appeal to the administrative law judge or find that the family did not owe the money.

The Appeals Council ruled on the case in May 2012, sending it back to the local office for a personal conference ─ essentially starting the whole matter from the beginning. Fisher, then a clinic summer intern, initiated communications with the local SSA office to schedule the matter. Her persistence paid off; the SSA representative assigned to the case concluded that given the consistent SSA mistakes and delays, all but $441 of the overpayment would be waived.

Johnson was delighted by the outcome and all the diligent work done on her behalf by the students in the Children’s Law Clinic.  Having recently completed her bachelor’s degree, she is now working for a program that assists families with disabled children.  She says she’ll be referring parents in need of similar advocacy to the Children’s Law Clinic.