A Joyous Clinical Outcome Five Years in the Making

A routine Social Security legal case morphed into a massive effort

Caroline Epperson and Nicholas Sumski were assigned what initially appeared to be a routine Social Security disability case during their first days as student attorneys in Suffolk Law’s Health Law Clinic. Although they didn't know it at the time, their work on the case would have an enormous impact on their education and their clients' lives. 

“It was a learning experience that you never forget,” said Epperson. 

“One of the highlights of my time as a student,” Sumski added. 

Epperson and Sumski, both JD ’15, were among the clinical students who took on a complex case requiring a team effort from the Health Law Clinic, Immigration Clinic, and the Accelerator-to-Practice Program. 

One case, many legal issues

Mrs. S first contacted the Suffolk Health Law Clinic in 2014, seeking help because she had been denied Social Security disability benefits despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and depression.

Unable to work due to her deteriorating health, she relied on her husband, Mr. A, for help with what were no longer simple functions—cooking, cleaning, dressing, and attending doctor’s visits.

During the pendency of her Social Security disability case, Mrs. S became pregnant with the couple’s first child. 

Husband deported

Shortly after Mrs. S’s son was born, her husband, who was undocumented, was found driving without a license while bringing his wife to a doctor’s appointment. Despite being responsible for his sick wife and an infant son, he was ordered deported.

As Mrs. S’s life began to unravel, students in Suffolk’s clinical programs got to work.

Students enrolled in the Health Law Clinic were the first to take on the case, handling the Social Security disability appeal. While Mrs. S’s case for disability was relatively weak when she first came to the clinic, Health Law Clinic Director Professor Sarah Boonin had confidence in the abilities of Epperson and Sumski to build a strong factual record and legal argument.

“This was definitely an emotionally challenging case,” said Sumski. “We listened to Mrs. S about the many obstacles she faced, and we had to work hard to gain her trust.”

Health & home challenges

Without her husband, Mrs. S struggled to care for her newborn son. Lacking her husband’s income and unable to work herself, she fell behind on her rent. Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, her landlord initiated eviction proceedings. Mrs. S faced the loss of her home and her extremely valuable Section 8 voucher. At this time, Mrs. S made a heart-breaking decision—to send her baby boy to Central America to live with his father, Mr. A, until she could regain stability. “She could have easily been homeless,” said Epperson. 

Sumski and Epperson spent countless hours interacting with Mrs. S—gathering facts, obtaining medical records, writing briefs, and continually planning their strategy for the upcoming hearing before an Administrative Law Judge of the Social Security Administration. The team prevailed in securing economic support for Mrs. S in the form of Social Security income. 

Housing solution

Simultaneously, Clinical Fellow James Matthews of Suffolk’s Accelerator Practice, provided valuable guidance to the client to stall the eviction process. With little time to spare, a sizeable retroactive Social Security payment allowed Mrs. S to pay her back-due rent and mounting credit card bills. Her newly awarded monthly benefits permitted her to stay in her apartment and meet her monthly expenses. 

Family reunited

The story of Mrs. S did not end there. Suffolk’s Immigration Clinic then stepped up and worked on Mr. A’s application for a green card based on his relationship to Mrs. S, a U.S. citizen. 

For Mr. A to successfully make a case that he qualified for a green card, the Immigration Clinic had to document the hardship faced by Mrs. S as a result of Mr. A’s removal to Central America. They did so successfully.

Earlier this year, Mrs. S, her husband, and their son were finally reunited back home in the United States.

“In the end, it was such a joyous moment to see the entire family together in our office,” said Shah. “It took nearly five years and hundreds of hours of advocacy by generations of Immigration Clinic students to make that moment a reality.” 

And that moment came none too soon. According to Shah, “if the case were being decided today, the Trump administration’s new rules barring low-income people from immigrating could have made this family’s separation permanent.

“The students’ persistence and zealousness turned what could have been a tragic story into a delightful one.”

Lessons impact careers 

Today, Epperson is an attorney with sklawyers, pllc, based in New Hampshire. In practicing family, Social Security, and business law, she finds herself using lessons she learned while a clinical student.

“Professor Boonin gave us real-life exposure, and she was able to take one specific area of the law and really teach it in a way that can apply to every practice,” said Epperson. “I still use lessons from the clinical program in all my cases.” 

“Being part of the clinical program was the most pivotal component of my Suffolk Law education,” said Sumski, an ethics and compliance officer with Fresenius Medical Care North America. “Developing vital attorney skills in the clinic, while also helping disadvantaged members of our community, was a win-win situation.”