Skip to main content

California Public Benefits: The Basics for Nonprofit and Pro Bono Advocacy 2020


Speaker(s): Alex Prieto, Cori Racela, Emilio Seijo Rivera, Jessica Mark, Joanna Parnes, Lauren Hansen, Melissa A. Morris, Raegan Joern, Rebecca Miller, Rose Molloy, Stephen Goldberg
Recorded on: Nov. 20, 2020
PLI Program #: 274922

Joanna Parnes is a Supervising Attorney at the Alameda County Regional Office of Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland, California. Joanna currently serves low-income clients with mental and physical health disabilities through direct legal services and systemic advocacy in the area of public benefits, with a focus on SSI and Social Security disability benefits. Prior to joining Bay Legal, Joanna worked at the East Bay Community Law Center and as a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, evaluating programs and policies that impact poor families. She holds a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and received her B.A. from the University of Michigan.


After joining PILP as a fellow in 2012, Lauren is now a staff attorney in the public benefit unit. Prior to joining PILP, Lauren worked at Legal Services of Northern California for in its Ukiah office doing housing, public benefits, and health law. Lauren graduated from UCLA and went to law school at the University of Iowa College of Law.

At PILP, Lauren has worked on a variety of cases on issues including redevelopment, housing element, General Assistance/Relief, CalFresh (SNAP), and CalWORKs (TANF). She started and currently leads PILP’s Rural General Assistance Project (Rural GAP), a project dedicated to increasing access to General Assistance/Relief benefits in rural areas. She is admitted to practice in California and Washington D.C.


Alex Prieto is a Senior Litigator at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, where he focuses on housing, public benefits, and economic justice issues.  Before joining Western Center, Alex was a staff attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County for six years, where he defended the rights of low-income clients in landlord-tenant, employment, environmental justice, and public benefits cases.  Previously, Alex was a clerk for the Hon. Margaret M. Morrow in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California and the Hon. Susan Kenny of the Federal Court of Australia in Melbourne.  Alex has a J.D. from University of California, Berkeley School of Law, where he was Articles Editor for the California Law Review, and a B.A. in comparative literature from New York University.  In his spare time, Alex enjoys hiking and backpacking, especially in the Sierra Nevada mountains.


Cori Racela is Deputy Director of the Western Center on Law & Poverty and a member of Western Center’s Health Team. Her health work encompasses securing quality, affordable healthcare for low-income Californians through policy advocacy and litigation, with a particular focus on Medi-Cal eligibility and due process rights.  She also leads Western Center’s equity and inclusion initiative, which includes centering racial justice in the organization’s external and internal efforts.  Before Western Center served as an attorney with both National Health Law Program and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.  Cori received a J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law and her B.A. from Harvard University.


Emilio Seijo Rivera is an accomplished and talented attorney with a diversified legal background spanning non-profit, in-house and government positions. His diverse areas of substantive knowledge include client counseling, litigation management, legal research and writing, training, government affairs, public policy, legislative analysis, administrative law, health care law, and employment law.

With his ability to work efficiently and effectively and to motivate others in fast-paced, high-pressure environments, Emilio has been commended for his performance excellence, enthusiasm and team leadership. Emilio has managed legal teams and has worked with cross-functional teams in the U.S. and abroad; he is bilingual in English and Spanish, augmenting his strong communication and interpersonal skills.

Emilio joined Bay Area Legal Aid in 2017, where he represents clients in Health Law administrative proceedings. Previously, he worked at GE Healthcare Ltd. where he researched, reviewed, and analyzed public policies related to health care and life sciences and advised on legislative changes.

In his prior government positions with the House of Representatives and Department of Agriculture, Emilio performed a variety of legal services, including developing public policy, drafting and amending legislation, and counseling government officials. Emilio played a key leadership role in transforming Puerto Rico’s Government public policy on taxation reform, government reorganization, industry incentives, and other legislative matters.

An adroit litigation manager, Emilio has driven litigation strategy, managed outside counsel, and has represented agencies in a number of hearings and settlement negotiations. Notably, he managed the high-profile disciplinary procedures and process to expel three House Representatives—one of which was the first member of the House in more than 70 years to be expelled; another was the first legislator in the jurisdiction’s history to resign for testing positive for the use of illegal drugs.

A proactive problem solver, Emilio has a history of improving processes, including overhauling an obsolete dispute resolution process to ensure timely adjudication of all cases and streamlining processes to expedite the passage of legislation.

After graduating law school cum laude, Emilio was invited to clerk for the Hon. Rafael Martinez Torres in the Court of Appeals of Puerto Rico. In addition to performing legal research and drafting judicial opinions, he learned a great deal about the judicial system and courtroom procedure early in his career.

Emilio also holds a B.S., magna cum laude, and an LL.M. in Health Law; he is admitted to practice in the states of California, Minnesota, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

Well respected for his attention to detail, good judgment, versatility and ability to deliver results, Emilio has earned a reputation as a fist-class legal counsel.


Jessica Mark is a Senior Staff Attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid. She works in the Alameda County Regional Office, located in Oakland, assisting people primarily with CalWORKs, CalFresh, and General Assistance. However, she is also familiar with Social Security, SSI, CAPI, Medi-Cal, and In Home Supportive Services. Before coming to BayLegal, Jessica worked at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, also assisting people with their various government benefits. Jessica earned her law degree at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, CA. She has a B.A. from California State University, Long Beach.


Melissa A. Morris is a Staff Attorney with the Public Interest Law Project, a statewide support center for legal aid programs throughout California.  Melissa’s work at PILP includes litigation in state and federal court on behalf of low-income individuals and families regarding access to California public benefits programs, affordable housing, fair housing, and the rights of people experiencing homelessness; as well as legislative and administrative advocacy regarding housing and public benefits issues.  Melissa also regularly provides training and technical assistance to legal aid attorneys and other advocates on topics including disability rights, California public benefits programs, eviction defense, criminalization of homelessness, affordable housing policy, mobile home park preservation, and rent control.

Prior to joining PILP in 2018, Melissa worked for 12 years at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, where her practice included direct client representation, impact litigation, and policy advocacy regarding housing, public benefits, voting rights, consumer issues, and the rights of people with disabilities in institutional settings.  Much of her work at the Law Foundation focused on preventing the displacement of low-income tenants and communities of color from Silicon Valley; this work included representing individuals, families, and resident groups at risk of displacement in court and administrative proceedings, advocating for state and local policies to designed to prevent displacement and increase the supply of affordable housing, and working with community groups and low-income tenants to build political power among the people most affected by Silicon Valley's housing crisis.

Melissa began her legal career in 2004 as a Borchard Foundation Center on Law & Aging Fellow at Legal Aid of Marin, where she represented low-income and senior residents of Marin County in housing, domestic violence, elder abuse, and consumer matters.


Raegan Joern is the Supervising Attorney for the SSI Advocacy Program at Bay Area Legal Aid's San Francisco office which serves unhoused San Francisco residents with disabilities who are eligible for County General Assistance (CAAP) benefits; assisting them with Social Security disability applications and appeals.  Ms. Joern has represented clients with various public benefits claims, appeals and hearings at the county, state and federal level.  Recently, she was co-counsel for the case Cruciani v. Contra Costa County, which resulted in multiple changes to Contra Costa County's General Assistance program.  She has a law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of Law.


Rebecca Miller is a Senior Litigator at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, where she advocates for low-income Californians on issues related to public benefits and access to justice, including assessment and collection of government fines and fees. She also partners with legal services attorneys on impact litigation to challenge unlawful practices in these areas. Rebecca previously worked at Bay Area Legal Aid as a consumer rights attorney, after starting her legal career in Georgia where she worked as a staff attorney at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and as an employment lawyer in the Farmworker Rights Division of the Georgia Legal Services Program. She is a 2003 graduate of New York University School of Law.


Rose Molloy is a Senior Staff Attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid working in Alameda and Marin counties with a focus on public benefits and economic justice for individuals with disabilities. Prior to joining Bay Legal in 2016 Rose worked with Sitra Services in London developing and delivering training to providers and users of supportive housing, consulting with local governments and non-profit providers on emerging legal issues in supportive housing. Previously Rose worked with the Homeless Advocacy Project of the Justice and Diversity Center of the San Francisco Bar Association as a Supervising Attorney. Rose enjoys amateur theater, secondhand shops and old movies (currently defined as the 1970s). 


Stephen Goldberg is Regional Counsel for Public Benefits for Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC).  In his role as Regional Counsel, Stephen supervises the public benefits practice for LSNC which provides services in 23 Northern California counties.  Stephen is a 1994 graduate of McGeorge School of Law.  He worked at the Human Rights Fair Housing Commission from October 1994 to December 1995.  He returned to LSNC in 2001 as a staff attorney in the Woodland office and moved to the Sacramento office in 2007.  Stephen became Senior Attorney in 2013.  Stephen has also worked for Northern California Lawyers for Civil Justice, the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations and the Legal Center for the Elderly and Disabled.  

In addition, Stephen has taught landlord/tenant law and administrative law in the paralegal program at American River College since 1998.  He also has taught legal writing at University of California Davis King Hall School of Law.