Clinical Program Success Stories
Brooke Bialke 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.
“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 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.
As part of her work with the Clinic, current student Emily Dunn ('13) recently helped a client win back the unemployment benefits which were unfairly denied her by her employer.
Dunn met with her client under the guidance of Professor Kathleen McKee, Director of the Civil Litigation Clinic. Dunn simplified the statutes and information involved in the case, developed a defense for her client based upon the corresponding case law, and won the case in court.
The clinical experience gives students confidence and a sense of accomplishment, eliminating the gap between the classroom and the courtroom.
"Our classes and professors instill in us the confidence we need to successfully represent our clients," Dunn says. "I was able to use that confidence to my client’s benefit in simplifying the process and vindicating her case."
Dunn's clinical experience solidified her desire to help people through the law by researching and advocating on their behalf. She highly recommends the clinic experience to future lawyers who have not yet had a chance to intern in an attorney’s office or in a court setting.
Tracy Hasse had the opportunity not only to work a case from start to finish but also to see her client vindicated. Hasse's client, a hardworking and conscientious hotel employee, was denied her unemployment benefits because her termination included an allegation of employee misconduct.
According to Hasse, her client experienced an extraordinary set of obstacles that kept from her completing her daily tasks. Even though she stayed late off-the-clock to finish cleaning her allotted rooms, her employment was immediately terminated when some of the rooms were found unfinished.
In the state of Virginia, an employer has the legal right to fire an employee for any reason; however, the claim for misconduct carries a high burden of proof. A one-day failure to meet an employer's expectations does not meet that burden of proof. Hasse was able to argue successfully on her client's behalf to see her unemployment benefits reinstated.
Hasse began working with her client in August of 2011 with the help of advisor Professor McKee, and stayed with her client through the October 2011 appeals hearing. Hasse describes McKee as a "brilliant, supportive, experienced" lawyer who has the unique ability to provide appropriate support while allowing her students the opportunity to grow through firsthand experience.
Although Hasse was pleased to win the case, she was more excited about the ability to bring justice to what she considered to be a deserving client. From their frequent interactions, Hasse observed that her client was concerned more with defending her integrity and less with receiving money.
"People may have a perception of terminated employees trying to get unemployment benefits," Hasse said, "but this woman was not trying to get something for nothing." For Hasse, her clinical experience taught her the importance of taking each case and person as they come rather than jumping to conclusions about their motives.
According to Hasse, God was intimately involved in the outcome. In the last meeting, professor, student and client bowed their heads and prayed for the outcome of the case. "We surrendered it to Him and said, 'Your will be done,'" Hasse said. "He was faithful to bring it through with what I was convinced was the just and right result."
Melissa Hudgins 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.”
Part-time student Val Johnson 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 NutritionAssistance 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.”
One of Ben Willis’s 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.