Clinical Program Success Stories
Part-time student Val Johnson (’11) joined the Civil Litigation Clinic to gain a real-life perspective on the law while maintaining her outside job. But at heart, Johnson was drawn to the Clinic because of its service-based approach to legal practice. Little did she know the experience would change lives – including her own.
Clinic Director, Professor Kathleen McKee, assigned Johnson her first case, a disabled man who had been denied SNAP benefits. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), administered by the Department of Social Services, provides funds to needy recipients to purchase food.
Johnson’s interest in the case grew as she got to know her client. “I realized he was a very hard worker. This wasn’t someone who was taking advantage of government services,” she said. Her client needed food to take with his disability medication, food his SNAP benefits provided. Johnson gave her client a list of local churches and food banks to use until his benefits could be reinstated.
SNAP recipients undergo a periodic verification process to maintain eligibility, and Social Services determined that Johnson’s client’s income exceeded the allowable amount. “My client had received SNAP benefits in the past, but for this particular period he was denied even though nothing had materially changed in his case,” Johnson said.
Reviewing his case, Johnson found that her client’s income had been misappropriated on his verification paperwork. She also realized that the verification rules were so complex that the average person may not understand them, much less someone with a disability.
At the hearing Johnson requested to correct the error, Social Services asserted that the verification process had not been completed by Johnson’s client. Johnson said her client was never notified by the agency.
As a novice litigator wanting to help, Johnson was surprised and relieved by the ruling in her client’s favor. The hearing officer ordered Social Services to repeat the verification process to determine her client’s income. “I’m confident my client will receive back benefits,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s victory helped her client become food secure and exposed a weakness in the welfare system. It also changed her perspective and her vocational direction. She now hopes to do similar litigation or to improve the welfare process by helping government agencies review their policies related to people in positions like her client. “This experience taught me to be compassionate and not judge where a person is, and to be sincere in my efforts to help,” said Johnson. “I’m confident the practical experience will be helpful as I transition into my legal career.”
Brooke Bialke (’10) recently fought to reinstate unemployment benefits for a local client who had been terminated from his job after failing to live up to his employer’s expectations.
In Virginia, unemployment compensation is denied if an employee is found to have participated in work misconduct. Through her research Bialke learned that the “misconduct” required to disqualify an employee from benefits must rise to a level of wanton and willful disregard for the employer’s interests. While Bialke recognized that her client may not have been suited for the duties assigned by his employer, she was certain that the termination was not his fault.
“The law is clear: being bad at your job doesn’t disqualify you for benefits,” said Bialke. “Not one of my client’s actions seemed to meet the level required by the statute. He was a diligent and dedicated worker.”
Despite her confidence in her client’s story, Bialke wasn’t sure the hearing officer would be as certain since there was some precedent that gave credence to the employer’s argument.
“This was the first case for which I was 100% responsible. It was possible that I wasn’t going to win,” said Bialke. “This man depended on me, so I completely over prepared. I interviewed him three times. I took forty-five minutes to prep him for a five minute testimony.”
In the end, her client received his benefits.
Bialke thinks there may be many people in similar situations who will never appeal a denial of benefits – even though the law seems to be on their side. More than ever, she sees the importance of helping indigent clients understand the law.
The student attorneys at Regent Law’s Clinic have won favorable results for their clients in all five unemployment cases the Clinic has taken on in the last year._______________________________________________
Brad Brickhouse (’09) approached client’s cases one page at a time. And that was just what was necessary to bring victory to a Hampton Roads man recently fired from his job.
This client had missed a lot of work because of a severe medical condition that had been communicated to his supervisor and documented thoroughly, so much so that there were volumes upon volumes of records.
Working on the client’s behalf, Brickhouse methodically condensed the paperwork and medical records into an articulate argument presented before the Unemployment Administration – and won._______________________________________________
Sentara Healthcare was founded in Norfolk, VA in 1888 and now is the largest integrated health care provider in southeastern Virginia and North Carolina, serving more than 2 million residents.
Still headquartered in Norfolk, Sentara often recruits Regent Law students for internships, externships, and possible job opportunities within the corporation.
Two students, Michael Deering (2L) and Erica Pero (3L), are currently enjoying the rigors of an externship with Sentara's legal department. Both students praise the experience for adding to their studies a depth of skills not gained in the classroom.
"I was treated as a young attorney and was expected to produce results equivalent to the work of a young attorney," said Deering of his externship experience. "The practice of law is not law school. The drudgery of reading for class and writing memos morphs into an excitement about producing the best work product possible."
Pero agrees. "The legal department at Sentara Healthcare is a close knit group of fantastic attorneys," she said. "I was treated as an equal from day one; I was given complex tasks that stretched my abilities and forced me to step outside my comfort zone."
The students report to the entire legal department at Sentara's corporate headquarters, but have also been privileged to work with corporate vice presidents and medical executives.
Pero deals with most of Sentara's corporate matters: mergers, acquisitions, creation of corporate entities, contracts with employees, and tax issues. One of her major projects was to file a Hart-Scott-Rodino pre-merger notification report with the Federal Trade Commission in preparation for a major acquisition in northern Virginia.
Deering has also been involved in many different projects including corporate by-laws, trademark issues, home health and palliative care, and negotiations.
Their summer hours kept them busy full time, and this fall they'll each work 180 hours to complete the externship credit. To Deering, it's all time well spent.
"The work you produce with your hands and mind, the time you spend analyzing, researching, and communicating, all ultimately affect an individual either within the corporation or on the outside," he said. "To me, there is no greater satisfaction than to know that my efforts, perseverance and diligence have helped someone in some way."_______________________________________________
Second year law student Sarah Hajovsky wants to use her J.D. in the field of international human rights. She doesn't have to go overseas, however, to gain the necessary legal experience. Instead, she only has to travel ten miles from the Regent University campus to gain exposure to some of the most important international humanitarian work being done today.
Since September, Hajovsky has been externing 12-15 hours a week with the Civil Military Fusion Centre (CFC) at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Supreme Allied Command Headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. Her projects support CFC's goal of "creating an environment where information can flow freely between civilian and military actors engaged in complex crises, with the intent to ultimately help those in need."
"I thoroughly enjoy participating in projects that have international significance," said Hajovsky. "And CFC is designed to facilitate communication between non-government organizations and the military when handling sensitive humanitarian disasters around the globe."
Hajovsky reports to the Knowledge Manager for North East Africa who is responsible for overseeing the humanitarian crisis in this region. In response to current events, Hajovsky has been compiling information for, and maintaining an informational website on, piracy of the coast of Somalia. In addition to writing a legal brief detailing the jurisdictional issues surrounding the prosecution of piracy, she also works for a member of the NATO general counsel.
Through her NATO externship, Hajovsky has gained a better understanding of maritime law and universal jurisdiction, along with the applicable United Nation Security Council Provisions, International Maritime Organization regulations, and the Suppression of Unlawful Acts directives. Read about other Regent Law externs here._______________________________________________
Melissa Hudgins (‘10) recognizes that her hands-on work with the Civil Litigation clinic will improve her career prospects. For her, however, the Clinic is about much more than personal gain.
“The beauty of the Clinic is not only the practical experience it offers students,” she says, “but that it allows clients to have a hand in changing students’ perceptions about those who depend on government aid to survive.”
In the fall of her 3L year, Hudgins worked on behalf of a single mother of three whose food stamp and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits had been terminated. The client received this sanction because she was alleged to have intentionally violated the program’s requirements.
In order to properly defend her client’s cause, Hudgins took the time to get to know her. She discovered that in addition to a lack of education, her client experienced difficulty finding adequate child care and transportation, all of which prevented her from supporting her family. She learned that her client also suffered from chronic medical problems that exacerbated the difficulties she faced when applying for public assistance.
From the day the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia referred the client to Regent’s Clinic, Hudgins had two weeks to prepare for the hearing at the Department of Social Services.
She unraveled a trail of paperwork that had been shuffled from caseworker to caseworker and carefully researched Virginia’s working requirements for TANF and food stamp recipients.
She and her client won their case.
More than the all the administrative knowledge she gained and the skills she developed, for Hudgins the invaluable part of her work was learning to see the process from her client’s perspective.
“My client had to report to a number of case workers who did not accurately inform her of how she could prevent the sanctioning process or have her benefits reinstated,” said Hudgins. “Her documents were mishandled and she was treated as just another case number. Without an advocate the process would be overwhelmingly frustrating, intimidating and stifling for anyone in my client’s shoes.”
"A judge and his clerks need to be skilled in their level of detail and accurate in their assessment of the law,” says third year law student Travis Weber. “I learned last summer how complex a task that is.”
Near the end of his second year, Weber participated in a resume collection through Regent’s Career Services office and was selected as the Honorable Mark S. Davis’s summer extern.
Judge Davis is a U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia and many matters come before him each day. In this environment, where clerks must analyze multiple issues on a given day, Weber noted that good legal writing is the single most important factor in keeping the court’s docket running efficiently.
“Despite the importance of how you appear during oral arguments, your skill and ability as a lawyer is largely dependent on your writing ability; it must be logical, truthful, and on point. Effective writing is concise and simple enough for any reader to understand on the first read-through.”
As a member of Judge Davis’s staff, Weber briefed him on matters filed with the court and prepared memoranda for him. This exposure gave Weber a good understanding of criminal law and constitutional procedure.
“This practical experience allowed me to make better decisions about where I wanted to be in my career,” said Weber. “I was also able to better apprehend certain concepts in class the next semester because I saw how it all worked in the real world.”
One of Ben Wills’s (’09) clients, referred by a local Legal Aid office, sought legal assistance after being denied food stamp benefits from the local Department of Human Services. DHS had determined the client ineligible for food stamp benefits because, according to their designation, she was an “able-bodied” adult capable of working the minimum 20 hours needed to satisfy the work requirement of the Virginia Food Stamp Manual. In reality, however, the client was unable to find and retain lasting employment as a direct result of severe impairments.
After researching the relevant law, Willis discovered that while the client may not have fit into the DHS definition of “disabled,” she had been diagnosed with severe impairments. She was not, “able-bodied” and therefore not subject to the minimum work requirement.
Willis successfully represented the client at a hearing after which DHS reinstated full benefits; a result that could have a significant impact on how the Virginia Food Stamp Manual is applied in the future.