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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Federal Pro Bono Project Volunteers Obtain Rare Social Security Disability Benefits Appeals Victory


Thanks to the advocacy of volunteer attorneys from Perkins Coie, VLSP Federal Pro Bono Project client, John,* received a rare victory appealing the Social Security Administration (SSA)’s denial of his application for disability insurance. A former machine and forklift operator in San Jose, California, John suffered from severe diabetes rendering him unable to work since the onset of his disability in June 2003. He has also faced bouts of homelessness.

David Tsai and christopher Tom

John filed for disability insurance with the SSA, but his application was denied. John then appealed the denial before an administrative law judge (ALJ), arguing his case pro se with his wife because they could not afford counsel. During the hearing, the ALJ summarily dismissed John’s complaints about not being able to present additional medical evidence and prohibited John’s wife from testifying. Yet the ALJ allowed the government to bring in a surprise expert to testify. The SSA Appeals Council upheld the ALJ’s decision.

Through the Federal Pro Bono Project, the matter was then placed for pro bono assistance with volunteer attorneys David Tsai and Christopher Tom, both of Perkins Coie. The attorneys, after carefully reviewing the record and SSA law, argued in their summary judgment motion briefing that the ALJ improperly disregarded medical evidence and misapplied the law. The judge was convinced by their arguments and granted John’s motion to remand the case for further proceedings. The client is thrilled to have another opportunity to obtain disability benefits.

Christopher and David were assisted by Perkins Coie associate Jacqueline Young, paralegal James Otake, paralegal assistant Terry Murphy, and legal secretary Sheila Merrill. Less than 10 percent of Social Security disability benefits appeals cases are successful in the Northern District of California.

To learn more about how to get involved with the Federal Pro Bono Project, email

*Client’s name changed to preserve privacy.

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