Students help workers obtain benefits legally due

May 24, 2013

Iris Yokoi

Andrew Spink with client

Andrew Spink ('15) collects information from a client at the Workers' Rights Clinic.

Class of 2015 students Margaux Poueymirou, Andrew Spink and Amy Bowles were all drawn to UC Irvine School of Law because of the school’s commitment to public service and helping the underrepresented.

Within the first six months of law school, each was already assisting clients in legal proceedings—and scoring victories.

Volunteering at the Workers' Rights Clinic in Santa Ana, a UCI Law partnership with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, these students helped workers obtain unemployment benefits that were wrongfully denied. Supervised by attorney Michael Gaitley of the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, the students interviewed clients, researched relevant case law and then represented their clients at administrative law hearings.

Poueymirou, one of UCI Law’s Public Service Fellows, helped a man win back unemployment benefits—and clear his name—after he was wrongfully accused of declining full-time work and making false statements to get unemployment checks. At the hearing before an administrative law judge, Poueymirou was startled when the employer introduced unexpected evidence (text messages). She modified her approach and theory of the case on the spot, and altered her cross-examination questions. “It was an intense experience,” said Poueymirou, who left the hearing feeling defeated, thinking she had to plot an appeal.

But the judge decided that the “surprise” evidence was outweighed by the client's credibility, and ruled in the client's favor on all six counts. The judge rejected the state Employment Development Department's claim that the worker was overpaid nearly $24,000, required the EDD to pay her client for the last three months of benefits lost, and extended his unemployment benefits for several more months. "It was better than our best-case scenario," Poueymirou said.

“It was a big deal, particularly for this family: three little girls, no higher education, reliance upon CalFresh [food stamp program].”

Poueymirou, a native New Yorker, also has a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She decided to pursue a law degree after she spent time teaching at an “economically-accessible” college in downtown Brooklyn. “I believe that UCI Law will help me become the lawyer that I want to be: namely, an advocate for the communities that I taught at this college,” she says.

Spink and Bowles represented a parking attendant who came to the Workers’ Rights Clinic after she was fired, allegedly due to a customer complaint. The client applied for unemployment benefits but was denied because the employer alleged she had committed “misconduct.” As Spink and Bowles reviewed the legal materials, “it became apparent that even if it were true that the client had acted as was alleged, this would not rise to the level of misconduct,” Spink said. Gaitley agreed with the students that there was no legal basis for the client's unemployment benefits to be denied.

The two students fully prepared for the administrative hearing, including crafting opening and closing statements. On the hearing date, Spink appeared with the client, but the employer didn’t show. The judge dispensed with much of the procedural formalities and focused on asking the client a number of questions. A few weeks later, the judge ruled in their favor, granting the client her unemployment benefits.

But the case wasn’t closed just yet. Their client had to return weeks later to repeat the hearing, after the employer showed good cause for missing the previous one. Bowles appeared with the client at that hearing – and emerged with the same result. The judge’s ruling confirmed that the client was owed unemployment benefits.

“Representing our client before the California Unemployment Insurance Board showed me the power of having representation,” said Bowles, who decided to pursue a law degree after working at a Washington, D.C. law firm that represents labor unions. “Our client was understandably very nervous to appear before the administrative law judge and field questions from the employer, but our conversations and preparation before the hearing helped instill confidence … so she could tell her story effectively.

“Being able to explain the process to her revealed to me the pervasive access-to-justice problem in our country. Even for fairly straightforward administrative proceedings, those without experience or resources can become overwhelmed or misinformed and disadvantaged as a result.”

Bowles, a Denver native and graduate of Kenyon College in Ohio, said her participation in the Workers’ Rights Clinic also has helped improve her interviewing skills and her confidence in speaking with clients.

Spink, also a Public Service Fellow at UCI Law, is a University of Rochester graduate who served in the Rochester AmeriCorps before law school. He agreed that seeing a case through to its resolution was educational and satisfying. “Our client has been very happy with our efforts, and she is someone we have enjoyed getting to know through this process,” he said. “We believed in her, and it felt very good to do work for someone who we truly felt had been wronged by her employer.”