As My Favorite Litigation Prof Would Say. . .

I won my first hearing on Wednesday.  One little boy who deserves it will be getting some money from the Social Security Administration.

The hearing was the result of my signing up for a clinic this semester.  (For those of you not immersed in legal craziness: a clinic with a law school is a credited class that allows students to do “real” lawyer work under the supervision of a real lawyer.)  Apparently it’s relatively rare for the students to actually get to go to court, so my partner and I were lucky* to get the case we did.  About a week after our initial interview with the client, we got a hearing notice.

Our case was not easy or obvious.  When applying for disability from the SSA, you have to show one of three things: that the subject “meets the listing” – meaning, specifically fits a description of symptoms listed in the regulations; that the subject medically equals the listing, or that the subject functionally equals the listing.  Meeting the listing is a yes or no question.  Functionally equaling the listing is an involved analysis that is very fact specific.  Frankly, it could also be pretty subjective.  You have to show limitations up to the level of marked or extreme under six different categories – called “domains” – of life skills.  We were advancing both a meeting and a functionally equaling argument.  We believed in both arguments, but because of the records we had and the wording of the laws, neither was an easy win.

My second hearing experience (recall my previous attempt to be an eco-terrorist) was pretty different from the first.  Aside from the fact that I was actually participating, rather than watching, and I had on the first truly well-fitted, confidence boosting skirt suit I’ve ever worn (thank-you, Mao Le!) – the SSA hearing was not adversarial.  Meaning – we did not have to argue with an opposing attorney.  It was just us, the reporter, our client and her son, and the judge.  There was also a medical expert on speaker phone.  The judge was plenty scary, though.  She was not especially happy to have three people plus the client troupe in, and she was adamant about keeping things short and to the point.  When we’d practiced (mooted, as our supervising attorney calls it) the hearing, it had taken an hour.  Our ALJ had another hearing scheduled to begin in a half hour.  She was not excited.  About anything.

She did thaw briefly when we trotted our little man in.  He is really unbelievably cute.  Then he was removed in a flurry of thrown crayons and choo choo trains and we got down to business.  My partner was allowed to give her opening statement. (The judge actually rolled her eyes.)  I ran through a judiciously abbreviated version of my direct examination of our client.  She was brilliant – remembered to hit all the points we needed to express, remembered all her dates without my having to refresh her memory, everything.  Then the ALJ asked the good Doctor whether our little guy met the listing.

. . .

The Dr. began to speak.  And she kept speaking.  I think she may have repeated back to us most of our letter brief.  Then she explained a lot of the whys and hows of our child’s particular issue, then she had some suggestions for his mom.  Finally, she said, oh yeah, he meets the listing.

Here is the similarity between the two hearings.  Once again, there will be no jumping out of your seat, whooping or even smiling delightedly as you are handed your win without even a cross examination.  After the Doctor was done speaking, the ALJ unceremoniously disconnected her (in case we wanted to cross – which we didn’t, I’m not sure how we’d have done so) and said, “you heard her.”

And that was it.  No cross from my partner, and no beautifully crafted closing argument from me.  Instead, a win for our client, and an extra hour to actually read for class and have coffee with my puppies.  In the words of my favorite litigation professor, “Thank you, Judge!”

*The whole thing was more exciting back when I thought I’d be able to work on the hearing and maintain the schedule I’d planned out to keep up with my other classes.  Not so much.