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October 14, 2014, was a great day for Maritza Hernandez.

For Hernandez, 56, it was the end of her two year battle to get the Social Security Administration to determine if she meets the strict standards of being determined ‘disabled,’ to recover lost benefits due to a degenerative medical condition and to finally receive Medicare benefits.

Her victory was made possible by FIU Law’s Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic.

The Clinic partners FIU Law with FIU College of Medicine’s Green Family Foundation NeighborhoodHELP™ where teams of students and faculty serve low-income households in neighborhoods throughout Miami-Dade County.

For more than three decades, Hernandez worked as a registered nurse in the emergency room at Jackson Memorial Hospital (JMH). She fell ill and was diagnosed with ailments ranging from spinal stenosis, to swelling of the legs to having to recover from a hysterectomy – a procedure intended to resolve her swollen legs condition.  Recovering and healing from her conditions forced her to be out of work for eight months.

She was fired. With no job she lost her insurance and her short-term disability benefits.

She couldn’t afforded to live.

It was a call from her daughter in New York that urged her to contact FIU Law and enroll in its clinical program.

FIU Law alumnae Natalie Castellanos who is also the supervising attorney in the Clinic was Hernandez’ first point of contact recalls the first time she met Hernandez:

“I met Ms. Hernandez at her home in July 2012; she had just lost her job and health insurance. She hadn’t had income for months, her bills were going unpaid, and she desperately needed regular access to health care,” Castellanos detailed. “Here was a woman who had devoted her life to helping others and suddenly she needed help to meet her basic needs. At the time we opened her case we had no idea whether we would be successful in securing her benefits. She also needed to secure access to health care despite being uninsured, which is where our partnership with the FIU medical school became crucial.”

The Clinic is part of FIU Law’s Experiential Learning program which allows students to learn about the law through real-life experiences. Interim Senior Associate Dean for Clinical Education, Experiential Learning & Engagement Michelle D. Mason explains the program this way.

“The goal is twofold – graduating students who possess the skills expected of every legal professional and lending our efforts to assuring that members of this community are not precluded from legal representation,” Mason shared. “I am so proud of Natalie and Alex.”

Law students manage a client’s case, and in a situation like Hernandez’ where considerable time has passed, students move on and graduate. During her time with the Clinic, Hernandez went through three law students – each one playing a significant and important part in her outcome.

“Rarely have I witnessed knowledge displayed with such sublime precision,” Hernandez shared. “The FIU Law team, from the initial interview to the wrap-up by ‘The Closer’ was superb. I am still reeling from my victory.”

The first two laws students advocated on Hernandez’ behalf, secured her some long-term benefits and began the appeals process.

When third year law student Alex Leiva (aka The Closer) got the case in August he had no idea what was in store for him.

“We received notice in mid-September that Hernandez’s case would be heard by the Social Security Administration in mid-October – it was time to kick it into high gear,” Leiva said.

Along with the 16 credit hours he is taking this semester, Leiva also works part-time with the law firm of Greenspoon & Marder. Add to that, the approximately 20 hours a week he was dedicating to the case, the regular visits and phone calls he had with Hernandez and even a crash course on how to review STAT sheets and lab reports by FIU’s Assistant Professor of Family Medicine, Dr. Christine McFarlin – Leiva was on full throttle!

Throughout the process Castellanos supervised and reviewed all of Leiva’s work, which included writing a nine-page motion, practicing for the hearing and even providing Social Security with two years’ worth of records they were missing. Leiva said the process, “was nerve-racking, but very fulfilling.”

When the magistrate ruled that Hernandez is in fact disabled and would receive back pay dating back to November 2011 and as well as receive Medicare for life – the victory was enjoyed by all.

Leiva recalls the experience this way, “the one-on-one client interaction and the satisfaction of being able to win for a client, who was truly in need, was worth all the effort.”

For Castellanos getting Hernandez everything she deserved was “a very fulfilling shared success.”

And for Hernandez working with the FIU Law Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic was life changing.

“The FIU Law and Medical team rescued me from certain death as I was in severe pain, physically unable to work or defend my rights for the first time in my life,” Hernandez shared.

For more about FIU Law’s Experiential Learning program, visit