Attorneys: Great Orators, Better Listeners

By: Steven Hendryx, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

While working in the HeLP Clinic this past semester, the skills that one traditionally associates with “lawyering” have been honed.  I, along with my amazing team and supervisor, had the opportunity to prepare for a disability benefits hearing.  This included interviewing, building up a case file, drafting a brief in support of our case, and preparing to advocate at the hearing for our client.  This was a truly rewarding experience, and one that I am very thankful that I had the chance to be a part of.

However, toward the end of the semester, I had an encounter that put all of that to shame, and reminded me that there are more important skills to being a lawyer and advocate.  While participating in the Behind the Scenes at Hughes Spalding program, I and another clinic student met with a potential client.  The resident that referred us to her warned us that she was very quiet, but that she may have a potential legal issue with her landlord—a very run of the mill case for clinic students.  What we did not know was that this woman’s problems ran much deeper than that.  Domestic abuse, stalking . . . the information came pouring out of her, along with her tears, without any prying on our part.  She needed to talk.

She continued, explaining that we were the first people who actually seemed like they wanted to help her.  On prior occasions, both doctors and judges had doubted her story.  This woman had exhausted all of the remedies at her disposal, everything that she knew how to do, and no one wanted to help.  That’s where we came in.

This encounter, as brief as it was, was one of the most impactful moments I’ve ever experienced.  It was a stunning reminder that while the stuff we learn in law school is all very important—writing, oral advocacy, courtroom skills—in this case (and I’m sure many other cases), the most important skill that we had was to sit back and listen.  Clients come to us for help—while our brains are always evaluating and analyzing, the clients are just getting things off of their chests, things that are impacting their lives daily.  This experience refocused my attention on client-centered lawyering, and is something that I’ll remember about the HeLP Clinic for the rest of my life.

How Much Do Lawyers Matter, Really? The Effectiveness of Representation at Disability Benefits Hearings

By: Steven Hendryx, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

This semester in the HeLP Clinic, my partners and I have had the privilege to work on a disability benefits case that proceeded to a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ).  Representing a client at an ALJ hearing feels like a chance to do some “real lawyering,” so we were all extremely excited to be working on this case.  We spent the semester poring over medical records, sending out requests, conducting interviews, and of course, drafting the brief.  This case was on my mind all semester, as it dominated the work that we did in the clinic.  But throughout the process, I kept wondering to myself—do these clients really need us?

Several times throughout the semester, I found myself wondering if providing representation was the most efficient way for us to assist disability claimants.  I felt like a lot of this process could be solved by self-help remedies, thereby broadening our scope and helping more people at once.  Maybe if we just held classes a couple times per year teaching people how to file their applications and appeal denials themselves, we would be more efficient.  As a result of these thoughts, I decided to do some research to see if we as (soon-to-be) lawyers are truly worth our salt.

While I was unable to find any peer-reviewed study or research on the topic, I did make several interesting discoveries.  According to one law firm’s research, the effect of having attorney representation at any point during the disability benefit process (application to ALJ hearing) nearly tripled the success rate of claimants.  This blew me away—just having someone like me work on your case makes it three times more likely that you’ll succeed?  But, once I sat back to consider the sorts of things that lawyers are able to do just by the nature of their position in society, this disparity in success rates made more sense to me.

When we request records from a hospital or school on behalf of our clients, not only do we know the proper channels to go through to do so, but people listen to us.  Just the “threat” of legal representation speeds things up for our clients, and people are much more willing to work with your demands thanks to that J.D. next to your name.

Additionally, we have the benefit of understanding how to peruse the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) rules and regulations, and how to use facts from the medical records to show that SSA’s criteria are met.  These are tools that are at our disposal that our clients likely aren’t even aware of.

The results of my research surprised me.  I knew that the work that we were doing was important, but I had no idea how effective we could truly be when representing our clients.  I still believe that the populace as a whole would be well served by someone doing some self-help sessions with interested people, because sadly we are not able to represent everyone who may need assistance.  However, I gained a new perspective about what it means to represent someone, and how powerful that ability truly is.

Poor Ophelia: The Human Tragedy of Childhood Mental Illness

By: Ragan Morrison, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

“Poor Ophelia
Divided from herself and her fair judgment,
Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts…”

So remarks King Claudius in Act IV, scene 5 of Hamlet upon witnessing the horrific collapse into madness of Ophelia, Prince Hamlet’s erstwhile love interest.  While the meaning and intended significance of her character have provided for spirited debate amongst readers and audiences of Shakespeare over the years, Ophelia has become something of a romantic symbol for youth afflicted with mental illness.  Certainly, Shakespeare’s works are filled with poetic references to madness, all with an eye toward making sense of diseases of the mind.

While of course our scientific knowledge of the brain and its maladies has fundamentally improved since the early 17th century, the unfortunate truth is that we are still many years from the kind of medical understanding needed to truly remedy these disorders.  And often lost in the cold data or medical reports of a child suffering from depression, or autism, or any of these insidious illnesses is an acknowledgment of the deep human tragedy belying them—all the more so when they afflict those so young.

Our work in the HeLP Clinic often puts us directly in front of children with mental health impairments and, as we and our medical partners try to help them, it has been meaningful to discuss and reflect upon the emotional reality of our cases.  Unlike Shakespeare’s Ophelia, there is nothing romantic about the suffering caused by childhood psychological disorders.  These illnesses torment not just the child, but the whole family.  The drama and stress caused by a sick child, and the concomitant financial pressures, take a serious emotional toll on parents, siblings, and anyone close to the patient.

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Do Students with Disabilities Have a Choice in “School Choice”?

By Emma Fennelly, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

Under the current administration, “school choice” has been heavily promoted by the Department of Education and its current Secretary Betsy DeVos as an alternative to traditional public schools, giving parents more choices when deciding how to educate their children. Charter schools are privately administered schools that are publicly funded, but still have the ability to accept additional funds from grants and organizations. Traditional public schools do not qualify for such funds.

In addition to funding differences, private charter schools differ from traditional public schools in administration: families must apply to charter schools and be accepted; charter schools do not follow the same state-mandated curriculums; and charter schools are not held to the same accountability requirements as traditional public schools. However, while charter schools may be exempt from certain state or local requirements, they are still a part of the public education system and, as such, are subject to all federal laws and regulations related to students with disabilities, particularly the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under this law, a child age 3 through 21 years old who is considered to have a disability under any of IDEA’s twelve categories of eligibility is entitled to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). An “appropriate education” is construed broadly and can include anything from assistance in a general education classroom with an occasional classroom aid, to a separate classroom for students with similar learning disabilities, to the implementation of related services such as speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy, psychological counseling, or medical diagnostic services necessary for the child’s education.

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How Housing Affects Patients with Sickle Cell Disease

By: Caitlin Correa , Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

In the HeLP Clinic, we receive several cases each semester involving children with sickle cell disease. While many individuals with sickle cell disease may be eligible for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration, many attorneys and patients alike do not realize the potential remedies available for a housing issue as it relates to a sickle cell patient.

Patients with sickle cell disease have abnormal hemoglobin production. As a result, these individuals’ blood cells form a “sickle” shape instead of a rounded shape, and these sickled cells are more prone to clumping while travelling through certain areas of the body. This clumping is what leads to a pain crisis. These pain crises involve swelling and extreme pain in areas where cells have clumped.

Usually, sickle cell disease starts to manifest its symptoms in a patient’s first year of life. The earliest signs can be in children as young as five months old, and symptoms only worsen with time. Treatment options can include undergoing a blood transfusion or administration of high-powered pain medications. However, physicians commonly warn patients with sickle cell disease to try to avoid crises before they begin. In this regard, a pain crisis can be triggered by multiple causes, one of which is exposure to extreme heat or cold. For these reasons, Georgia summers provide a serious hazard to patients with sickle cell disease. This risk highlights the importance of understanding housing rights in Georgia, particularly for those renting an apartment or home.

First, as with all legal issues, every situation is different and sometimes the rights and remedies for one situation may not directly match up to another. However, as a general rule, if a landlord offers air conditioning in his or her rental units, he or she has a legal duty to keep these air conditioning units in good repair. If the landlord fails to fix units or lets units fall into disrepair, then the tenant has a duty to notify the landlord of the issue. This notification allows the landlord to have a reasonable amount of time to pay for the repairs and potentially take remedial measures.

Specifically for patients with sickle cell, who may have a pain crisis triggered by the lack of air conditioning, these remedial measures are particularly important. Such measures include the potential to ask the landlord to reduce the next month’s rent in proportion to the weeks spent without air conditioning. In addition, if the landlord actively chooses not to repair the air conditioning, and the sickle cell patient continues to suffer pain crises due to the heat, the tenant-patient also potentially has the ability to vacate the dwelling in something called a “constructive eviction.”

However, this constructive eviction option should only be used as a last resort, and as with all interactions between a tenant and a landlord, communication is key. Thus, a patient with sickle cell disease should communicate (preferably in writing) how fixing the air conditioning is a vital part of their health and well-being. Hopefully with this kind of communication between tenants and landlords, and the presence of legal rights and remedies, sickle cell patients will not continue to suffer pain crises due to fixable housing issues.

Access Through the Lens of Housing

By: Brieanna Smith, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

I observed landlord-tenant mediation recently and had a conversation with an attorney representing landlords; we talked specifically about pro se tenants who were lower income. Landlords’ attorneys are aware that tenants on Section 8 will lose their housing voucher if they get evicted. Attorneys will use this against tenants to get them to agree to pretty much anything to prevent eviction.

From what I have learned from being in my Access to Justice class and in the HeLP clinic, a lot of lower-income tenants have multiple legal issues going on. The most common reason why tenants are evicted is nonpayment of rent. A tenant could have lost their job, had a medical emergency, or their car could have broken down. Financial hardship, unfortunately, is not a legal defense. Also, landlords in Atlanta (from what I learned from participating in Alternative Spring Break) often do not keep properties in livable condition. Unfortunately, laws in Georgia are not tenant friendly. Tenants who live in substandard conditions may think that withholding rent is the only way for them to get justice, but it’s not. And even if they are constructively evicted and vacate the property, they may not have anywhere else to go. Imagine living in a subpar situation and having a sick child whose conditions are exacerbated due to these conditions. Some tenants may also be dealing with domestic violence or problems on their job. Some tenants may have awful relationships with their landlords or may not even know who their landlord is due to a change in management. During mediation, tenants also have expressed that leasing offices were often closed during the hours that they were supposed to be open. The landlords also would not return phone calls, make necessary repairs, and sometimes even refused to accept payment.

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Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Stress and Anxiety Bite

By: Morgan Schroeder, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

As law students, it would be safe to say that all of us have had experience with not getting enough sleep. It is well known that adults should get between seven to nine hours of sleep every night. But many times we have to stay up later to finish an assignment by a deadline or read for class. And sometimes, stress and anxiety about an upcoming exam can keep you up or wake you up in the middle of the night. We’ll sleep in on the weekend, “catch up on some sleep,” and then start the process all over again when the workweek starts back up.

Many times, sleep deprivation and anxiety go hand in hand. The less you sleep, the more anxious you are, and the move anxious you are, the less you sleep. But depriving the body of sleep for long period of times, such as during finals season, can result in more than just anxiety; it can cause serious side effects to your health. There are some side effects that can be very damaging to one’s performance in the legal profession, as well as in everyday life.

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