This fall semester, Emily Seelenfreund, J.D. ’17 and Myra Siddiqui,  J.D. ’17, students in the Disability Litigation and Advocacy Clinic coordinated by Senior Clinical Instructor, Julie McCormack, presented an oral argument before the U. S. District Court in Boston on an appeal from Social Security’s denial of the case at the agency level.

By Emily Seelenfreund, J.D. ’17 and Myra Siddiqui,  J.D. ’17 

Working in the clinic, we were responsible for all aspects of case development- new client intake, acquiring medical records, crafting a case strategy, drafting hearing memos, and preparing our clients for direct testimony. The latter is an important component of representing  clients at administrative law hearings, appealing their denial of social security disability benefits.

But perhaps the most exciting part of our semester was the opportunity to represent a woman with multiple disabilities who, after a ten year long career, has been unable to work due to the combined effects of these disabilities. She applied for Social Security Disability Benefits but was denied those benefits in 2013, after a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Appealing the denial at the U. S. District Court in Boston, we argued the following errors had occurred:

  1. A failure by the ALJ to consider one of the client’s primary arguments- that she met one of the listings (Social Security’s list of common disabilities- which if met, qualify the claimant as automatically disabled).
  2. The ALJ wrongfully relied on only part of the Vocational Expert’s testimony (an expert on jobs in the national economy who testified at hearings) and thus found jobs for our client when there were none.
  3. Lastly, the ALJ only gave limited weight to our client’s treating physicians while incorrectly giving controlling weight to Social Security physicians who had never examined our client.

We spent dozens of hours preparing for the hearing: We researched relevant case law and we incorporated it into our oral arguments, our initial brief, and brief in response to opposing counsel’s arguments. After several moots with Senior Clinical Instructor, Julie McCormack, Clinical Professor of Law, Faculty Director of the Legal Services Center, and Vice Dean for Experiential and Clinical Education, Daniel Nagin, and Lecturer on Law and retired judge, John C. Cratsley who teaches in the Judicial Process in Trial Courts Clinic, we grew confident in our ability to present oral argument naturally, rather than reading off an assigned script. We also felt prepared to respond to questions and present rebuttal arguments. The experience was challenging and exciting, and one available to only a few students since these appeals are quite rare.

What surprised us the most was the value of the time we spent learning, organizing, and prioritizing the medical evidence and other information in the record (which as you might imagine was very large by this stage). It was also very gratifying to see and feel the growth in our ability to present oral argument across the many moots we did together as a team.  The experience also made us better advocates, underscoring that advocacy happens as much in preparation outside the courtroom as in the presentations inside it.  But the single most valuable element was the knowledge that all of this work was directly assisting our client who otherwise would not have been able to challenge the denial of her benefits.  We highly recommend that others interested in opportunities to develop oral advocacy skills consider enrolling in the clinic.