Pro bono profile: Sullivan gives hope to the disabled

Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013
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Attorney M. Katherine Sullivan sees people every day who are denied the benefits they're entitled to by government agencies and private insurers. As a partner at the Boston firm of Rosenfeld Rafik & Sullivan PC, Sullivan seeks to help "chronically ill and disabled people access the health care insurance system."

Sullivan has secured private disability benefits for clients through successful litigation, and she also represents clients in Social Security disability matters and denials of health care claims. A volunteer with both the Volunteer Lawyers Project Pro Bono Panel and the Health Law Advocates Pro Bono Panel, Sullivan says one case that stands out in her memory is the case of "Miss W." -- a homeless woman who had spent several years in-and-out of shelters and correctional facilities.

Miss W.'s difficulties stemmed from mental health issues, which she had developed as a direct result of child abuse. Having applied for disability benefits, Miss W. spent years waiting for a hearing with an administrative law judge. Unfortunately, the judge dismissed her hearing because Miss W. had communication difficulties with her representative.

After meeting Miss W., it was clear to Sullivan that her difficulties in front of the judge were due to severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. It was also clear these symptoms were misunderstood.

Applying her disability law experience, Sullivan filed an appeal to allow Miss W. to move forward with her hearing. She also gathered Miss W.'s missing medical information to give the judge an accurate picture of her ongoing mental health struggles. Miss W. was eventually granted the disability benefits she was entitled to.

"These benefits will allow her to live in a small apartment while she continues to try to put the pieces of her life together and manage her debilitating symptoms," says Sullivan, who credits her firm for its strong commitment to pro bono work. "What struck me most about being able to help someone like Miss W. was the fact that sometimes it does only take one person in our lives to make a difference," she says.

It's the ability to make a difference in a deserving life that keeps attorney Sullivan coming back for more. And in the case of Miss W., "That difference meant the difference between being homeless, and on the street, and feeling hopeful in an apartment," says Sullivan.