DC Pro Bono Week 2022 Profiles: Helping Vulnerable Individuals in Our Community Across Practice Areas
By Sylvia Soltis
It is inspiring to speak with Mariah Hines, an associate in Sidley Austin’s Healthcare group, about the quantity, variety, and impact of her many pro bono engagements. Her pro bono matters span across practice areas including disability benefits, immigration, housing discrimination, and more. Even more impressive is that Mariah has done so much to help others so early in her legal career, having graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 2020.
Mariah credits her participation in Sidley’s 1L Diversity Fellowship Program for solidifying her intention to incorporate pro bono into her career and piquing her interest in public benefits law in particular. During her fellowship, Mariah had the opportunity to work with attorneys across various practice areas and support the firm’s extensive pro bono efforts. Under the mentorship of Sidley’s then Pro Bono Counsel Mark Herzog, Mariah worked on securing a green card for a mother who had fled her home country of Honduras and was living in D.C. with her daughter. She also worked on a case referred from Legal Aid for a former school bus attendant who was no longer able to work after experiencing a heart incident that required him to undergo multiple surgeries, rehabilitation, a leg amputation, and re-learn how to write among other motor skills. The client needed representation to appeal the denial of Social Security disability benefits. Mariah assisted with collecting and analyzing the client’s medical records and preparing a brief that was submitted to the administrative law judge.
After graduating from law school, Mariah took the opportunity to work full-time with Legal Aid’s Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project through a one-year fellowship sponsored by Sidley. During her time with Legal Aid, Mariah made a significant contribution to the organization’s efforts in pursuing an anti-poverty agenda through litigation at the D.C. Court of Appeals. Mariah drafted briefs and motions, assisted in preparing for oral arguments, and helped identify cases from the Court’s docket that would likely impact Legal Aid’s client community.
In the fall of 2021, Mariah returned to Sidley as an associate and wasted little time identifying pro bono opportunities. Over the past year she has taken on pro bono cases from Disability Rights MD, Tahirih Justice Center, and Legal Aid. Through these engagements, Mariah continues to demonstrate her commitment to helping some of the most vulnerable individuals in our community.
“Mariah is an exceptionally talented advocate,” notes Jonathan Levy, Director of Legal Aid’s Appellate Advocacy Project. “Combining a brilliant legal mind with a high degree of emotional intelligence, Mariah offers her clients creative, effective, and compassionate representation.”
One of Mariah’s clients, Ms. Colby*, needed help appealing the denial of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for her now 14-year-old son who has multiple behavioral and mental health conditions. He has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) at school and receives consistent medical care from his providers. Yet despite the support systems in place at school and at home, Ms. Colby’s son continued to have difficulty regulating his behavior and accessing grade-level content.
The matter had a long and complicated history. Ms. Colby’s claim for benefits on behalf of her son was denied at the initial application stage, upon reconsideration, on appeal before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), and finally by the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Appeals Council. The next stop was the United States District Court where Legal Aid filed a complaint while advising Ms. Colby to simultaneously initiate a new SSI application which was allowed under SSA’s rules. In July 2021, the District Court reversed the prior decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. The two pending SSI benefits applications for Ms. Colby’s son would now be heard together at one ALJ hearing. Mariah, now at Sidley, agreed to handle the matter, after having taken lead on Ms. Colby’s District Court filing during her fellowship in 2020.
Mariah guided Ms. Colby through the unwieldy administrative process, prepared an extensive record in support of the child’s claim, and advocated for Ms. Colby and her son at the ALJ hearing. A component of Mariah’s strategy and advocacy was to illustrate that Ms. Colby’s son was a whole person – more than the disabilities documented in his medical and school reports.
Days after the hearing and more than five years after Ms. Colby filed the initial application for benefits for her son, the ALJ issued a fully favorable decision finding that Ms. Colby’s son had met the disability guidelines since 2016 and awarding the son benefits. Through her zealous advocacy, Mariah not only ensured that this family would finally begin receiving these critical monthly benefits to help Ms. Colby secure additional services and support for her son, but also the back benefits they had been entitled to for the five years they had waited for a favorable decision.
“It is fulfilling to be that resource for my clients and to take a part of that burden off them,” shares Mariah when reflecting on her pro bono work. “It is even more rewarding when I can celebrate with them in their victories. I see the tangible benefits my clients receive – be it financial benefits or an immigration status change. But I also see the nontangible. I see the impact it has on them to be heard and feel less stressed by what is holding them back. In Ms. Colby’s case, I could hear the relief in her voice when I would speak with her after we won her case.”
Mariah appreciates the privilege that comes with having a law degree and the impact she can make in expanding access to justice for those in need. Our client community is lucky to have as committed an advocate as Mariah. We at Legal Aid look forward to supporting Mariah in her pro bono practice as she continues in her legal career.
*Named changed to protect confidentiality.
Sylvia Soltis is a Senior Staff Attorney in the Pro Bono Program at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, the oldest and largest general civil legal services program in the District of Columbia. Legal Aid was created in 1932 with the goal of making justice real – in individual and systemic ways – for persons living in poverty in the District of Columbia. For more information about Legal Aid, please visit our website, www.LegalAidDC.org.