Part-time student Val Johnson (’11) joined the Civil Litigation Clinic to gain a real-life perspective on the law while maintaining her outside job. But at heart, Johnson was drawn to the Clinic because of its service-based approach to legal practice. Little did she know the experience would change lives – including her own.
Clinic Director, Professor Kathleen McKee, assigned Johnson her first case, a disabled man who had been denied SNAP benefits. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), administered by the Department of Social Services, provides funds to needy recipients to purchase food.
Johnson’s interest in the case grew as she got to know her client. “I realized he was a very hard worker. This wasn’t someone who was taking advantage of government services,” she said. Her client needed food to take with his disability medication, food his SNAP benefits provided. Johnson gave her client a list of local churches and food banks to use until his benefits could be reinstated.
SNAP recipients undergo a periodic verification process to maintain eligibility, and Social Services determined that Johnson’s client’s income exceeded the allowable amount. “My client had received SNAP benefits in the past, but for this particular period he was denied even though nothing had materially changed in his case,” Johnson said.
Reviewing his case, Johnson found that her client’s income had been misappropriated on his verification paperwork. She also realized that the verification rules were so complex that the average person may not understand them, much less someone with a disability.
At the hearing Johnson requested to correct the error, Social Services asserted that the verification process had not been completed by Johnson’s client. Johnson said her client was never notified by the agency.
As a novice litigator wanting to help, Johnson was surprised and relieved by the ruling in her client’s favor. The hearing officer ordered Social Services to repeat the verification process to determine her client’s income. “I’m confident my client will receive back benefits,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s victory helped her client become food secure and exposed a weakness in the welfare system. It also changed her perspective and her vocational direction. She now hopes to do similar litigation or to improve the welfare process by helping government agencies review their policies related to people in positions like her client. “This experience taught me to be compassionate and not judge where a person is, and to be sincere in my efforts to help,” said Johnson. “I’m confident the practical experience will be helpful as I transition into my legal career.”
- By Kristy Morris