Pro Bono Spotlight: Davis Polk & Wardwell Attorney Secures Benefits for Severly Disabled Woman
Friday, January 15, 2010
- New York Legal Assistance Group
When Kevin VanLandingham, an attorney at Davis Polk & Wardwell who provides pro bono services to NYLAG clients, met Ms. L, he was eager to provide her with the substantial legal assistance that he knew she would require. Ms. L is a 60 year old woman with severe mental and physical disabilities including depression, Hepatitis C, several fractures sustained from falls, severe anemia and a brain tumor. Ms. L, however, had difficultly communicating her impairments and needed significant help securing the benefits to which she was entitled. Ms. L’s initial application for Social Security Disability had been approved, but after undergoing “quality assurance” review, the decision was reversed due to the inability to determine the severity of her condition.
VanLandingham believed that it would take a lot of work to get his client to the point where she could present herself, effectively, in front of a judge. He and Ms. L began months of collaborative preparation. He practiced asking questions that a judge might ask, regarding gaps in her record and potentially misleading evidence. Through practice, he built Ms. L’s confidence and ability to communicate her condition clearly and directly. VanLandingham poured over her record and collected evidence from her doctors—preparation for a lengthy and detailed legal memorandum that reflected the complexity of the case. In preparing for the hearing and drafting the report, VanLandingham was assisted by Virginia Farmer, a summer associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell.
For her hearing, Ms. L was assigned a judge with a reputation for stringency. Ms. L grew increasingly anxious. At the hearing, the judge questioned Ms. L’s claim of both mental and physical disability. Leaving the hearing feeling pessimistic, VanLandingham prepared Ms. L for the possibility of an appeal. The judge, however, after reconsidering the evidence, returned a fully favorable decision. Ms. L received retroactive Supplemental Security Income benefits dating back to 2007, for a total of $9,018.
VanLandingham values the very personal nature of pro bono work. In the case of Ms. L, he appreciated having the opportunity to interact one-on-one with his client, sharing her joys and pains. And while the process is different from his regular work in securities related litigation, he finds significant similarities as well. Representing pro bono clients requires diligently collecting and preparing evidence, writing a detailed report and presenting before a judge, tasks he finds familiar, but the reward is altogether different. “I was uncharacteristically excited when I learned that the judge awarded Ms. L her benefits,” said VanLandingham. “I had helped a person who desperately needed assistance, and had a very direct, positive effect on her life.”