Many of us dream of making a positive impact on the world around us. For Michael Amoruso, that dream has recently become a reality.
Amoruso, a partner at Amoruso & Amoruso LLP in Rye Brook, was one of the driving forces behind the recently passed Special Needs Trust Fairness Act. The act allows mentally competent individuals with disabilities to establish a special-needs trust. These trusts allows disabled individuals to have supplemental funds to pay for daily living needs, while still allowing them to qualify for government benefits like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income.
Special needs trusts were first recognized by Congress in 1993, but an oversight in the law stated that the trusts could only be created by the disabled person’s parent, grandparent, legal guardian or the court.
Michael Amoruso with his guide dog, Demetri, at the White House.
“So who was missing from that list? The individual,” Amoruso said. “We’re really dealing with the constitutional rights of individuals.”
Amoruso said with the 1993 law, “there was now a presumption in federal law that anyone with a disability lacked mental capacity.”
“I made it my mission to change it,” he said.
The cause held a special significance for Amoruso, who is legally blind and was born with bilateral hearing loss. “Society likes to call us a vulnerable group and yes, there are higher risks, but for those of us in the group that have mental capacity, we’re differently abled,” he said. “That’s what the world needs to see and that really was the thrust behind the fairness act and making sure that change occurred.”
Following his diagnosis of a hearing impairment at just 6 years old, Amoruso was placed in remedial classes and told he would never be able to read above a fourth-grade level. “I knew I was smarter than they were telling me I was,” he said. “I had a very high IQ, but my grades didn’t reflect that.”
Despite his struggles, Amoruso urged his parents to allow him to take an entrance exam for the Iona Grammar School, a selective private school in New Rochelle. Of the 70 students who took the exam, Amoruso was the single applicant chosen to attend.
“They didn’t separate me from the world like they do now with special (education),” Amoruso said of his time at Iona Grammar School. “They put me into the environment, because my intelligence was there, it was just the lack of fundamentals because of my hearing.”
Amoruso immersed himself in his schoolwork, joining the debate team, memorizing dozens of vocabulary words each evening and completing one book per week.
His relentless studying eventually paid off. When Amoruso began his studies at the private school as a seventh-grader, he said he had the vocabulary of a 6-year-old. Upon his completion of eighth grade, he had the vocabulary of a 13-year-old.
“That propelled me forward,” he said.
But Amoruso was dealt yet another blow just before his senior year at Boston College when he was diagnosed with a degenerative retinal condition, one that he was told would leave him completely blind later in life.
Amoruso was determined not to let his condition affect the career path he had planned for himself. He went on to attend Boston College Law School, but when the time came to apply for his first summer internship, he found it difficult to find a firm that was willing to work with him.
“I actually had an interviewer – and this is post-the Americans with Disabilities Act – actually tell me, ‘I don’t possibly see how a blind person could be an effective lawyer,’” he recalls. “And that just added more fuel to my fire.”
He also had trouble finding employment following his graduation from law school – saying, “no one would hire the blind, deaf guy”– but Amoruso eventually landed a job with the Vincent A. DeIorio Law Firm.
It was then, during his first case with the firm, that Amoruso discovered the language regarding special needs trusts. His client, a disabled woman, had won a significant sum in a medical malpractice case that eventually dwindled to $50,000. He saw the special needs trust as a way to protect her assets, while still allowing her to receive government benefits.
“When I looked at the statute and saw (that) she couldn’t sign her own document and that we had to go to the court and have them sign it, I was flabbergasted,” he said.
In 2001, Amoruso, along with his wife Sreelekha, opened their own practice specializing in elder law and special needs cases. He also “worked up the ranks” to become chair of the New York State Bar Association Elder Law Section and became vice president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
“I feel it is my duty to be a voice for the disabled and for seniors and be an example,” he said. “I need to give all others that are in or have been in my shoes an example that they can rely on to better their own life.”
It took time, but Amoruso’s efforts helped secure passage of The Special Needs Trust Fairness Act, that was signed into law by President Obama in December. Amoruso was at the White House for the signing ceremony.
Amoruso said his work is not yet finished. As of now, New York state is not in compliance with the new federal law. Amoruso said adding a provision to the state’s budget bill “makes the most sense, because there is a firm deadline as to when this should occur.”
He added, “We shouldn’t have to go through a process in New York state (that could take) another two to three years just to get these two words in.” The two words are “the individual.”
While Amoruso is unsure whether the future of his career lies in private practice or a possible foray into the political arena, he will continue to use his naysayers and nonbelievers as motivation. “When I look at my bar accomplishments, I keep looking back at that interviewer my first year of law school,” he said, “and I smile.”