‘The answer to my prayer’
When letters and phone calls to the Social Security Administration fell on deaf ears, Brenda Cunningham turned to Elon Law’s Elder Law Clinic hoping for a miracle.
By Roselee Papandrea
The letter from the Social Security Administration arrived in Brenda Cunningham’s mailbox on Valentine’s Day 2012.
She wasn’t expecting it to be a love letter, but when she read it, she was stunned. She owed more than $35,000 in “overpayments” she had received a few years prior while working part time, the letter said. Worse yet, she would no longer receive her monthly disability check. In an instant, everything changed. With her main income gone, Cunningham couldn’t keep up with her mortgage payment and many of her other living expenses.
If she couldn’t get the situation fixed, she was going to lose her home in Greensboro, N.C.—the place in which she had lived for 14 years—and her independence. Determined to stop that from happening, she wrote letters and made phone calls to the Social Security Administration. She kept detailed notes but couldn’t get anywhere. Time was running out. “It was like running into a brick wall, backing up and running into it again,” Cunningham says, recalling her contact with Social Security representatives. “I was walking around my house praying for some answers.”
It was then she overheard a public service announcement on TV about the Elder Law Clinic, one of four free clinics operated by Elon University’s School of Law. “That was the answer to my prayer,” Cunningham says. “I was in a corner, frustrated and scared. I had somebody I could ask and if they couldn’t help me, they could at least give me some options.”
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Second- and third-year law students volunteer at the clinic that opened in fall 2012 and offers free legal services to Guilford County residents 60 years of age or older with a monthly income of less than $1,700 for individuals and $2,200 for couples.
During its first week, more than 150 people called for help, says Hannah Vaughan, director of the clinic. Since then, it has handled more than 70 civil cases, ranging from public benefits to wills, estate planning and power of attorney and health-care directives. Some cases simply require students to help clients properly fill out paperwork. Others, such as Cunningham’s troubles with the Social Security Administration, are more involved and take several semesters to resolve. “It is absolutely gratifying to be able to serve the public in this way,” Vaughan says. “There is a great need for services for seniors in our community.”
The work done in all of the law clinics—Elder, Humanitarian Immigration, Small Business & Entrepreneurship and Wills Drafting—benefit more than just the clients served. Aside from getting practice using the knowledge gained in the classroom, the clinics provide students direct experience with clients. Eight students volunteer in the Elder Law Clinic each semester and work in pairs under Vaughan’s supervision. She reviews their work to make sure there are no legal errors and provides guidance and support but does not dictate how the cases are handled. She lets students take full responsibility for managing each case, from the first phone call until the file is closed. “They have to consult with me before giving any legal advice, but the work is their own,” she says.
Mark Wilson L’13, who now practices criminal law in Gaston County, N.C., was the first of six law students to handle Cunningham’s case in fall 2012. He and his clinic partner, Mike Wilson L’13 (no relation), interviewed her and then did research to see if she actually owed the money, according to Social Security’s rules.
“That was the biggest frustration,” Mark Wilson says. “The moment I realized she technically owed the money, I started trying to figure out what her options were.”
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Cunningham was in her late 50s when her troubles started. Her kidneys were failing and she had to undergo peritoneal dialysis. While it was inconvenient, she maintained her strength and continued to work for the credit and activation division at AT&t Wireless. When her kidney problems worsened, she was put on hemodialysis and could no longer work because the procedure was too draining.
She went on long-term disability and started receiving Social Security payments. After about six months, she returned to peritoneal dialysis, and since she was barely making ends meet with the monthly Social Security checks, she got a part-time job. At the time, she was aware she could only work part time because she was receiving disability. Once she found a job, she let the Social Security Administration know she was earning $9 an hour for 20 hours a week. In 2009 she had a kidney transplant and continued working for as long as she was able.
There were some months when there were three pay periods. It was during those times Cunningham made more than she was entitled to, according to Social Security guidelines. If she had to pay that money back, it would have been devastating to Cunningham, now 66. “I would have lost my house,” she says. “I would not have had anywhere else to live.”
The first thing law students were able to do was get Cunningham’s monthly payments temporarily reinstated. In addition, Mark Wilson prepared a brief requesting the Social Security Administration waive the debt. But when the semester ended, the issue still wasn’t resolved. Cunningham’s case was handed off to other students.
Adam Kerr L’13, who is now practicing law in Greensboro, and his clinic partner, Haley Price L’13, had to resubmit the brief after the Social Security Administration misplaced the first one. “This was pretty significant,” Kerr says. “If it didn’t go the right way, she was going to lose her home.”
Rachel Jeanes L’14 picked up the case last summer. She and her clinic partner, Michael Bunch L’14, represented Cunningham at a hearing and argued on her behalf. In September 2013, Cunningham received a letter from Social Security stating the debt had been waived. “I was thrilled with the outcome,” Jeanes says. “We couldn’t ask for a better result.”
In order for an overpayment to be waived, a person has to show substantial hardship and that they were not at fault in creating the overpayment. With the clinic’s help, Cunningham was able to show that without continued receipt of her full Social Security income, she would be homeless and have no means to support herself. The clinic was also able to prove that she had accurately reported her part-time income to the Social Security Administration in a timely manner. It wasn’t until nearly four years later that Social Security actually notified Cunningham that she had been overpaid. During most of that overpayment period, Cunningham would have been eligible to collect early retirement benefits.
Ultimately, the local Social Security office agreed to treat the debt as uncollectable. However, despite her letters and phone calls, Cunningham was unable to resolve the issue on her own. “In many ways, it was a matter of knowing how to work within the system,” Kerr says.
Since receiving assistance from the Elder Law Clinic, Cunningham also was able to get her mortgage refinanced so her monthly payments are now less, a silver lining for Cunningham, who plans to continue living in her home for as long as her health allows.
“I am still grateful to them for being able to come through for me,” Cunningham says of the students who worked on her case. “People have more dramatic circumstances. But when you have a problem, your problem seems the biggest to you. They can help a lot of people so I’m glad they are here.”