To celebrate our 40th anniversary in 2017, Virginia Legal Aid Society is telling 40 stories that reflect our history, our people and the cases and events that have made the past 40 years so memorable. These will be released over 40 weeks, finishing at our gala celebration on November 17 in Farmville at the Moton Museum.
Gorman Rosenberger served as staff attorney for the first group to offer legal aid services in Lynchburg and Campbell County, Legal Aid Society of Greater Lynchburg. (For more on this group, please see our previous story.) He recently sat down to discuss a few of his more memorable cases from those days.
One was a workers’ compensation claim – the type of case that private attorneys usually handled. In this case, the client had a sporadic drug problem that made it difficult for him to stay employed and difficult to represent in a workers’ compensation case. Gorman took on the case.
Besides the drug issues, the client initially failed to receive workers’ compensation in part because the doctor who evaluated him said his back problems were not severe enough to prevent him from returning to work.
Gorman was able to show that the doctor had twice before failed to diagnose a herniated disc in his client, sending him back to work before the client was properly treated. It turned out that once again, the worker had a herniated disc, and Gorman won the case.
In another case, a foster mother had been taking care of a girl for several years when the agency decided, without warning or explanation, to transfer the girl to another home. Gorman came to decide the move was the result of a personal dispute between the foster mother and the agency representative. He convinced the judge, at the foster mother’s request, to allow her permanently adopt the girl.
In 1978, after three years with Legal Aid Society of Greater Lynchburg, and preparing to get married, Gorman was ready to move into private practice. By this time, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP had received a $529,151 grant from Congress’s newly formed Legal Services Corporation to create a new Legal Aid organization that would cover not only Lynchburg and Campbell County but 24 other cities and counties to the south and east. You can read that story here.
The new group, Virginia Legal Aid Society, opened up at 901 Main St. in downtown Lynchburg, a stone’s throw from Legal Aid Society of Greater Lynchburg’s 927 Church St. office. Soon, the original office made preparations to close, transferring many of its uncompleted cases to VLAS. Gorman credited office manager Mary Riley, who made the move to VLAS, with helping make the transition so smooth. David Levy, VLAS’s first Executive Director, said, “Mary Riley was one of the true stalwarts of Legal Aid in Lynchburg. She kept us all organized all the time I was there.”
Gorman eventually went on to cofound a law firm now known as Agnew & Rosenberger, with six offices throughout Virginia. Much of the work is still based on the public benefits, workers’ compensation and related cases that Gorman cut his teeth on at Legal Aid Society of Greater Lynchburg.
“I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Legal Aid,” Gorman said.
After he went into private practice, Gorman handled a case that continues to have an impact on some people seeking federal benefits to this day. The 1985 case extended eligibility for disability benefits to particular group of workers throughout the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Gorman’s client had injured his back. Since doctors determined he could perform light work at his company, the Social Security Administration determined the client was not disabled. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, Gorman had his client’s intelligence quotient tested. The client received a score of 63. This was important because Social Security had a rule that said an injury like the client’s that forced a worker into light duty, coupled with an IQ in the 60-70 range, made the worker eligible for disability benefits.
The agency disputed the findings, then argued that it could not be assumed the client had an IQ in the required range before he had taken the IQ test. Back and forth the case bounced, with administrative law judges weighing in at several points. Seven decisions, seven rejections.
“I didn’t understand why I was wrong, even though I had been told seven times,” Gorman said.
Gorman successfully brought the case to the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, covering the Mid-Atlantic States. The Court ruled unanimously in favor of Gorman’s client, setting a precedent for the region and providing trend-setting case for potential citation from courts around the country.