Local Social Security lawyer first certified in state

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  • | 12:00 p.m. April 9, 2007
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by Anthony DeMatteo

Staff Writer

If you want a nationally certified Social Security attorney in Florida, Jacksonville is the place to be.

Jacksonville attorney Tracy Miller, who has been practicing Social Security law for 12 years in Jacksonville, recently became the first attorney in Florida certified in her field by the National Board of Legal Specialization.

The board takes testimony from peers and judges, reviews records and administers a test to enable an attorney to call herself an expert in an area of the law. Certification requires an attorney to have handled more than 100 hearings.

Most of Miller’s clients are unemployed and in serious financial trouble. They look to her to recover retroactive benefits from the U.S. Social Security Administration. And she typically does not disappoint.

“I think I win, on average, about 90 percent of my cases,” she said. “But I always try to tell my clients that ‘It doesn’t really matter if I win 90 percent of my cases if you’re in my 10 percent.’”

The mother of two children, a 7-year-old boy and 5-year-old girl, Miller works part time in a home converted into law offices on Park Street, seeing about six clients a week.

Miller said her practice had a slow first year.

“I wasn’t really formally part time until I had kids,” said Miller. “I just didn’t have enough clients to be full time. I actually worked out of my house for a year and kind of waited for the phone to ring.”

But it didn’t take long for the clients to come.

“In all Social Security cases, what you’re facing is a person who comes in and says ‘I can’t work anymore, I’m disabled and I want to get benefits from the government,’” she said. “The most common medical problems that I see are back impairments, depression and bi-polar disorder.”

Mental illness, she said, can be a complicated area.

“The cases always rely on what the doctors are saying,” she said. “But then, the judges are free to say ‘I don’t buy it. I met her, she seems fine to me.’”

She said her work gives her a look into the lives of people with debilitating problems.

“It’s kind of like social work combined with legal work,” said Miller.

Miller said about 70 percent of applications for disability are initially denied.

After denial, clients wait about 15 months for a hearing, though sometimes the process can be circumvented by a judge’s order or a compromise settlement.

“The goal is to get them as much retroactive benefits as they can get and as many retroactive medical benefits,” she said.

She said her best clients are those with long work histories in jobs requiring physical labor.

“A lot of people who have really heavy, hard jobs, eventually, their backs and their knees and their hips give out, so they can’t really do the work they used to do and their skills don’t really transfer to lighter jobs.”

Miller said the average monthly benefit she wins for clients is about $800.

Cases are supposed to be reviewed every few years, but Miller said it doesn’t always happen.

“Realistically speaking, Social Security doesn’t seem to be well-funded enough to actually review all the cases,” she said.

Miller graduated with an undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of South Florida, but the only political action she takes now is sticking the names of Democrats to the bumper of her car.

She graduated from the University of Florida Law School in 1992.

“Political Science doesn’t really teach you anything, but it’s interesting,” she said.


In many cases, Miller said, people are unaware they are eligible to receive Social Security benefits.

For instance, when a mother taking care of a mentally disabled adult child dies, the child is often eligible for Social Security.

But back benefits in many cases only include a year’s worth of what a person would have received, and Miller said the Social Security office isn’t searching for people who are eligible for money.

“They’ve got enough to do,” she said. “They can’t process the letters I’m sending over. They’re not looking for anybody.”

Miller also works with the North Florida chapter of Multiple Sclerosis, and has a lot of clients with the disease.

She takes a playfully circumspect stance of the public’s view of lawyers.

“A lot of people just don’t like lawyers,” she said. “But I think lawyers are generally interesting people, they’re interested, they’re aware politically. I’m not really sure why people hate lawyers, but they do not like us. I know many lawyers, and we don’t really talk about it much, but we’re aware that we’re disliked.”

Her family

Miller’s husband is also an attorney, board certified in wills, trusts and estates. Her father was a criminal judge in South Florida.

For her certification test last year, she drove to Charleston, S.C.

“They just gave you a pad of paper,” she said. ‘I wrote 57 pages. I mean, morning and night of answers. That’s a lot. My hand was killing me.”

She drove back that night to be with her family.

“My daughter wants to be a doctor, a cook, a mom and a lawyer,” she said. “They hear a lot of law talk. We always tell them lawyers try to help explain the rules of society, which is really about as basic as you can get.”

Miller said many of her clients can’t afford to wait for settlement money.

“One thing you see is how everyone is just living on the edge,” said Miller. “Sometimes I tell them it might take two years and they say ‘I’m going to lose the house in six months. There are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck.”

When a client receives an award, Miller gets a percentage directly from the Social Security Office, which charges a 6 percent fee for the service.

She said she might take on more cases as her kids grow older, but she has no plans to take on a partner.

“I like having total control,” she said. “I’m kind of a Type A personality. A lot of people who work for themselves would probably never think about working for anybody else.”



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