This summer I had the honor of working with Solid Ground’s Benefits Legal Assistance (BLA) through a PILF-funded internship, where I learned about the administrative hearing processes, conducted independent legal research and drafted appellants’ memoranda, and advocated on behalf of indigent clients facing adverse actions with public benefits.
One of the aspects I enjoyed most about this internship was the fast pace of administrative law. During my 10-week internship, I worked on dozens of cases ranging from client intake, to drafting hearing memoranda, and reviewing the final order by an administrative law judge. On any given day, I might talk directly to three or four clients to discuss their case, call caseworkers at DSHS to advocate for an extension or translate eligibility requirements, or dig deep into the weeds on a new discovery packet.
In many cases, I conducted intake interviews and learned how to gauge an individual’s level of comprehension of their own issue in order to ask the right questions to determine whether theirs was a case we could take on, or whether I could refer them to another agency. In other instances, I came onto cases that the attorneys were preparing for hearing, and provided fresh eyes and an inquiring mind to spot additional issues we could use to refute the department’s position.
The client’s housing arrangement with the father of her children did not match the “traditional” nuclear family model, nor did they live separately enough to be considered separate households under the controlling regulation.
Some cases will undoubtedly stick with me. One client came to Solid Ground for help when DSHS assessed an overpayment for childcare in the amount of tens of thousands of dollars. As a result, the other parent’s income disqualified our client from the child care subsidy she had been receiving. The client’s housing arrangement with the father of her children did not match the “traditional” nuclear family model, nor did they live separately enough to be considered separate households under the controlling regulation.
The client, who had turned to state public benefits when she could not afford child care for her children, was now facing what felt like an astronomical debt for what could arguably be described as a misunderstanding by all parties.
To me, this case stood for several flaws of our public benefits system. First, the regulations around counting members of a household for income eligibility purposes assumed an outdated (and classist) familial arrangement and disincentivized unpaired low-income parents from making arrangements that are financially feasible and allow them to maintain close relationships with the children.
Second, the client had initially reported her living arrangement and received the subsidy, but was now liable for the overpayment even though it resulted from an error by the department. This result felt unjust and I was eager to support our client’s appeal at the administrative hearing.
We won on a theory of equitable estoppel, but the department appealed the final order of the ALJ, and I contributed to our response all the way up to the last days of my internship. It was a thrill to get the “We won!!” email from Solid Ground a couple of weeks later, and to know that our client’s overwhelming overpayment issue had been resolved at last.