The First Call.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011. The Law Firm. 8:30 a.m.
“Hoglund Law Offices, Natalia speaking. Are you a current client or a new client?”
Squeezing the phone receiver hard, Denise responded. “New client. I have questions about Social Security.” Her left palm was wet holding the phone.
“OK,” said the calm voice on the line. “I’ll put you through to one of our paralegals.” Hold music followed.
Twenty seconds later: “Hi, this is Shannon. Is this Denise? I have some questions for you.”
Denise understood that this was a screening call. She was going to be asked questions to determine if she had a good case. She took a breath.
Shannon continued. “We are a law firm, and we keep everything confidential. Let’s start with your full name and address.” Shannon had a nice, almost cheery, voice. Denise explained her diagnosis, treatment, and work history. Denise felt like she was being heard.
“Thank you Denise. Let me get this information to one of our attorneys to review. Please hold.” That startled Denise. Her throat tensed up. What if they won’t help me? What if it actually does cost money up front? Here it goes. Denise closed her eyes and took some deep breaths.
The hold music played. A Spanish guitar on a bad radio signal. A few minutes later, Shannon came back. She was bright and cheery – again.
“Denise, you there?”
“Yes.” She swallowed hard.
“I spoke with the attorney, and he said we could help you.”
Just like that. Denise felt a sob rising from within her chest. Her eyes welled up. “Thank you so much.”
“No problem. It’s my job. Remember, we only charge one quarter of back pay if you win.” Emily was right, she thought. “Unlike ome other firms, we charge for nothing else. Hang in there. You’ll get a packet of paperwork we’ll need you to sign. We’ll send it out right away. Please hold. I’ll get Andrew the attorney on the line.”
This pause was shorter. A few muddy guitar chords played. “This is Andrew. Is this Denise?”
“Yes.” Things were happening fast.
“I was the attorney here reviewing your claim. I decided we could help you. I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years.” Denise relaxed. He knows what he’s doing. “In my experience, Social Security denied you before, but you turned 50 later this year. Your age now makes a big difference.”
He continued. “We need to prove you are limited to sedentary work, and you cannot return to your past kind of work full-time.” He explained the two-year Social Security appeal process, how his firm worked, and then he said, “Does your neurologist know you are applying for disability?”
“Yes, I just brought this up at my last appointment yesterday.”
“Good. From your treatment and history, it’s likely your doctor knows you are doing as much as you can to get better. Next time you see your doctor, can you ask him to make sure your records are clear about how you are limited by MS? We’ll likely ask your doctor for input about how you are doing later.” Input? Denise thought. Law is mysterious.
She answered quickly, “Sure. He knows me real well. I just did more testing.”
“Excellent. It is important that your true limitations are clear in the medical record. This is what we argue about with doctors at hearings.” Doctors at hearings? She was confused.
Andrew spoke with Denise further, answering different questions, especially about Social Security hearings. “Eventually your case leads to a hearing with a judge,” he said. “Don’t worry. It isn’t Judge Judy.” Denise laughed. “That’s TV. You get a private hearing with us there with you. We are a real law firm, not a corporation, and we plan to hang in there with you.” Do companies without lawyers do this? Denise thought. “Our attorneys spend almost every day with judges in our area. One of us will be with you.”
“You applied before, but never went to a hearing, right?” Andrew asked.
“Right, is that a problem?”
“No,” he said. “Just verifying. Most people are denied when they apply. Social Security contracts with state agencies to filter people out at the first two steps. They are backward enough to mostly review their approvals. We find many of their denials inconsistent. It’s our job to point these problems out at every hearing. And we often do.”
Denise spoke up. “I had the chance to buy long-term disability at the hospital I worked at. I didn’t. Is that a problem?”
“No. Private long-term disability insurance has changed since the mid-90’s. If you got it after that, and then got approved here for Social Security Disability, you have to pay them back.”
“Yes. The federal government should stop what’s called the ‘Social Security offset.’ Many people end up paying for nothing.”
The lawyer continued, “And remember, Denise, keep treating regularly. Even with MS, Social Security assumes you are doing better if you aren’t verifying your symptoms from time to time with your doctors. It’s unfair, but true.”
“Got it. Mr. Kinney?”
“Andrew is fine.”
“Can you be my lawyer at the hearing?” Denise felt better asking this.
“I’ll put your request in our computer system. I do about 350 hearings a year. It takes about two years and two appeals to get to a hearing. When that time comes up, they will check if I am available. It could be someone else here, but I trust them or I wouldn’t work with them.”
“Ok.” The call ended. Her body relaxed. She felt someone was on her side. She breathed out. Two years? Here we go. Some weight on her shoulders lifted, and she felt less alone. She took a nap.
That night, she had the same dream. She was thrown into the lake. This time, a hand reached down from above her head and grabbed her hand. She woke up, scared and sweaty.
While she realized these nightmares weren’t true, the upcoming year would be her biggest test.