When the single mother of two looked across the table and said she was about to get tossed out of her house, Kenneth Kinney knew law school had entered the real world.
The woman’s story, in summary:
She was fired from her job as an overnight stocker at a supermarket because of what the company called “no call, no show.” She says she did show that night, did nothing wrong and was actually fired for complaining to corporate about a supervisor’s sexual harassment.
She applied for unemployment benefits but was denied because the alleged offense leading to her termination fell under Missouri’s umbrella term of “misconduct.” She fell behind on mortgage payments for her Lee’s Summit home and had received a notice of foreclosure.
That’s when Crystal Petty, 30, found herself sitting across from Kinney, who is part of the Unemployment Clinic, a new service provided through Core Legal Advocates in conjunction with the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s School of Law. Students such as Kinney now fight those cases for people who don’t know how to fight for themselves.
Lori Fluegel, interim director of the nonprofit clinic, sat next to Kinney that day.
“When she got to the point about losing her house, I thought, ‘Uh-oh, pressure is really on Ken,’ ” Fluegel said.
Kinney, a third-year law student, argued Petty’s case before the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission’s appeals tribunal, including cross-examining an official with Petty’s former employer.
He won. Petty got benefits retroactive to when she filed.
“I got to keep my house — my kids got to keep their house,” she said recently. “I could not have done what (the UMKC clinic) did for me. I didn’t know how.”
Petty’s case appears to be a textbook example of what the clinic is designed to do.
“This service is mainly for people who have lost low-paying jobs — blue-collar types, pizza places, custodians,” said Jeffrey Berman, a professor and associate dean of the law school. “If we use our law students to help them — while getting real experience — everybody comes out ahead.”
Fluegel, a former assistant Jackson County prosecutor, said it’s about helping to provide social justice to people who need it most.
The clinic project began when a clerk at the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals told the law school that the court was hearing lots of cases from people denied unemployment claims. Most were fighting without a lawyer, and the cases were often dismissed. Berman, faculty supervisor for the clinic, was not surprised.
“Most people do not know how to do legal research, draft a brief or argue an appeal,” he said.
The clerk asked whether the law school could help. St. Louis University had already started a clinic on that side of the state.
Kinney, who will graduate later this month, jumped at the chance to be part of the clinic. He saw it as a great opportunity for real experience. He hopes to work in labor and employment law.
Three phrases seem to be at the core of many cases: misconduct, voluntary quit and “through no fault of their own.” Crystal Petty was fired for misconduct. Why did someone voluntarily quit? Easy to see how “no fault of their own” can be argued in court.
Kinney said many people don’t know that if they are fired or quit a job, “You can still qualify for unemployment.”
Sometimes, he said, they need someone like himself rather than going it alone.
“The job loss is still fresh — their emotions running hot,” he said. “That can make it hard to get your message across.”
Like Petty needed him?
“That was pretty awesome to help her.”
How to get help
Anyone who feels they have been wrongfully denied unemployment benefits can apply for help at the clinic at 4743 Troost Ave., or call 816-235-5129.