Why I Went to Law School

I met with a client a little while back because she'd been fired from her job at a lumber mill in Oregon. "Mary" is fifty years old, she'd given eight hard years of dutiful labor to the plant, and recently bought a manufactured home that she put on a little plot right next to the freeway. You could throw a rock from her front door at the passing cars. Mary picked up as many overtime shifts as she could at the plant, regularly working a double shift of sixteen hours. She bought a new F250 a few years ago and could not have been prouder of it; it was a symbol of her hard work and responsible choices.

Two years ago, Mary's father was diagnosed with well advanced lung cancer. She asked the plant for family medical leave and took some time off work to care for her Dad in his final weeks. One day she was called by plant supervisors as she sat next to her dying father's bed. They put her on speaker phone at the plant to tell her matter-of-factly that she was fired for not adequately checking in. This was just what she needed in the middle of her father's ordeal. She didn't know if she could handle another blow on top of losing her father. Her father passed away shortly afterwards. Mary's labor union went to bat for her with determination and forced the plant to give Mary her job back. But she had cross hairs on her back since the day she was reinstated. Plant supervisors were not going to let Mary or her Union dictate who they could fire or when.

Fast forward almost two years. Despite having shown the mental toughness of a prize fighter and an unwillingness to be driven from her livelihood at the plant, Mary was finally terminated. Plant supervisors said that Mary's ten-minute shift break had run long. They said it was the third break in 9 months that ran minutes past the allotted ten minutes she was allowed. Plant management had finally puzzled through the problem of getting rid of Mary, after many failed attempts, in a way that Mary's Union couldn't seem to defend. Always proactive and responsible, Mary sold the F250 within days of her termination and bought an older pick-up with a little rust and some engine problems.

As if that wasn't enough. The plant challenged her right to draw unemployment benefits alleging that her "pattern" of overlong breaks (3 in 9 months) constituted a willful and wanton disregard for their interests and it amounted to misconduct. Amazingly, the Administrative Law Judge assigned to hear the dispute agreed with the plant. Having left Mary without enough money to buy a tank of gas, I privately wondered if they'd send some thugs over to her soon-to-be-foreclosed house to rough her up. I was astounded at the plant's malice.

I entered the picture at about this time and I filed a request to the Employment Appeals Board for a review of the ALJ decision, I requested and reviewed the transcripts of the hearing then drafted and submitted a written argument for Mary in an effort to get her unemployment benefits reinstated. I had not done any administrative law to speak of and never drafted a written argument for the Employment Appeals Board. I hammered our argument together out of whole cloth without a template to even know if my formatting complied with convention. One morning about a week later I got an email from the EAB with an attached decision. The email from EAB was one sentence long. It said, "Notice of Appeals Board Decision 12-AB-8888 is attached." I was so worried for Mary my heart skipped a beat as I clicked on the PDF file.

Things had gotten pretty rough for Mary; the walls were really starting to come down in Mary's world. She was literally a week away from her water, phone and other utilities being cut off. She'd been given as many payment extensions as she was going to get. After that it was only a matter of time before she was on her sister's couch or in a shelter, or maybe jumping off a bridge. An eternal optimist, Mary told me that the people managing her outstanding accounts were good folks and had given her numerous extensions for payment. But she reported that if she couldn't pay within the week, most her services would be discontinued. The rest would be cut off shortly thereafter. Mary didn't complain about her account holders; to her they had done nothing wrong, to the contrary they'd helped her out in a difficult time with numerous payment extensions. She didn't expect the gas company to give her gas indefinitely without payment. But she was getting scared. The last thing she said to me before the EAB decision was, "I don't know what I'm going to do."

I had high hopes the EAB would do the right thing but I had been stupefied that the administrative law judge had been so off base when he decided the issue of Mary's unemployment benefits wrongly, especially when so much was stake. The PDF file started to opened up on my screen and I saw:

"APPEALS BOARD DECISION. Reversed. No Disqualification."

The Appeals Board had adopted most of my arguments completely. I couldn't wait to call Mary with the news. It would mean she'd be able to keep her bills paid and keep the lights on, put gas in her pick-up, continue her job search, and possibly stay in her house. Either way, it meant the difference between surviving and spiraling into a financial free fall that she might never pull up from.

I didn't earn any income that day. I did the EAB appeal pro bono, but I have not felt better about the outcome of any case I've worked on in the time I've been practicing law. It's funny, but sad, that Mary wanted to pay me out of her retroactive unemployment benefits. Fair is fair! Mary believes. But that was not going to happen. And it didn't. To share an overused cliche, this is why I went to law school.