BY KAREN TENENBAUM
Brendan St. Amant (2L, Health, Employment, Living Legacy, and Planning [HELLP]) recently won disability benefits for a client at the Legal Services Center.
The client, who is about 43 years old, grew up in Boston and had been working as a carpenter and a house painter when he injured his head in a fall from a rooftop. In the battery of tests that the hospital performed after the fall, the doctors discovered previously undiagnosed cancer on the client’s vocal chords. Although the client underwent treatment including radiation, the cancer metastasized and spread to his mandible within about a year. The cancer – which has necessitated a permanent feeding tube to the client’s stomach – plus the fall, which caused a subdural hematoma (St. Amant likens this injury to a really bad concussion) have made the client unable to work or perform the simplest day-to-day tasks. While mowing the lawn might have taken half an hour in the past, now it takes an entire day.
The client, always an independent and self-reliant person, was initially reluctant to seek out disability benefits. It was his long-term partner who ultimately convinced him to apply. According to St. Amant, the agency administering disability benefits “denies almost everyone about two times.” In the initial application, “you have to be almost on death’s doorstep to get it.”
St. Amant received the case in mid-September, after most of the evidence had been gathered, and had just two weeks to prepare for a hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). St. Amant’s theory of the case was based on an interpretation of the “listings,” a sort of checklist that determines which medical conditions qualify applicants for disability benefits. One of the listings provides benefits for cancer that has metastasized, except for vocal cord cancer. A less determined advocate might have given up then, but St. Amant was undaunted. What exactly did the exception for vocal chord cancer mean? St. Amant argued that the listing was intended to exclude cancer that had spread “from vocal chord to vocal chord,” or from something else to vocal chord, but not from vocal chord to elsewhere. The ALJ ruled in the client’s favor, and the client now receives disability benefits.