Donna M. Nesselbush has dedicated her life to helping people; it’s her raison d’être or “reason for being.” She has represented thousands of Social Security Disability claimants at all levels of review before the Social Security Administration, the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, the Appeals Council, the United States District Court, and the United States Court of Appeals.
A native of Buffalo, NY, she grew up in a blue collar family that revered God, football and hard work. Nesselbush received a scholarship to attend Brown University, and upon graduation, she was awarded the Sarah Doyle Prize “for having made a significant contribution to women on campus and in the community.”
In 1984, armed with a degree in American Civilization, her first job was as the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Her work there placed her in an advocacy role for victims of domestic violence, spearheading a number of avant garde initiatives in the court house as well as the State House. Those experiences became the genesis of her desire to become a lawyer; she needed to become an attorney to better help victims of domestic violence.
In 1987 she enrolled at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, starting a hectic four-year period in which she advocated for domestic violence victims by day and studied law by night.
“It was an intense schedule,” Nesselbush recalls. “I would literally read case law and do my law school homework while waiting to advocate for women in court or while waiting to testify on the issue at the State House. I was very motivated; I had a cause.”
Nesselbush not only was selected to write for The Law Review, but also graduated cum laude. After receiving her juris doctor degree, she continued working at the Coalition Against Domestic Violence for another year, during which she pondered her next step: how would she best use her new law degree to help people? The battered women’s and homeless shelters began asking Donna if she could help disabled residents who were living in the shelters partly because they had been denied Social Security disability benefits. Her legal career was born; Donna had found another cause!
She immersed herself in Social Security Disability law. In 1992 she joined a Providence law firm and focused solely on Social Security Disability law, making partner four years later. Then, in 1999, she and her law school friend, Joseph P. Marasco, joined hands and forces to launch the new firm of Marasco & Nesselbush, a firm dedicated to the injured and disabled.
“I love Social Security Disability law because I work for the downtrodden,” Nesselbush says. “By definition, my clients are physically and/or mentally ill, and they are out of work. By definition, they believe that they are unable to work. So consequently they have fallen on pretty tough times. I’ve always been pleased and proud to work, day in and day out, helping to provide what we all hope and pray is part of America’s safety net for the truly disabled.”
One of Nesselbush’s proudest professional moments occurred in 2011, when she prevailed before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving a veteran of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division who had been denied Social Security benefits on several occasions since the 1970’s. After serving his country in the Army, the client began to experience symptoms of mental illness and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His wife tried to help by twice applying for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, but his application was twice denied. His health never improved and 30 years later, in 2003, his wife applied for Early Retirement benefits for her husband, who was by then living in a Veteran’s Nursing Home. This time, the client turned to Nesselbush for help.
This final application launched an eight-year battle that Nesselbush fought on behalf of this Army veteran who died in 2005. Nesselbush was aware of a little known, arcane Social Security Ruling that she knew was right on point. She zealously fought for the deceased veteran and his family, and on April 29, 2011, the Federal Appeals Court and the Administrative Law Judge agreed and ruled favorably: his widow and children would be entitled to benefits from the initial claim in 1975 to the time of his death 30 years later!
Nesselbush states, “This case showcases our firm’s mission to “do the right thing” and to help and fight for our truly disabled clients until the bitter end.”
“If we believe in a case,” she says, “we have the firepower to litigate a case on principle all the way up to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.”
A picture of Mother Jones hangs framed on Donna’s office wall and embodies the way she practices law. It’s says, “Pray for the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living.”
“I just love helping people,” Nesselbush says. “That’s why I went to law school. I didn’t want to be a banker or a corporate lawyer; I wanted to work with real people who had real problems.”
Attorney Nesselbush stays sharp and current on the law by being an active and “Sustaining Member” of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives. She is also a member of the American and Rhode Island Associations for Justice.
In addition to being a partner at Marasco & Nesselbush, Donna Nesselbush is the Chief Judge of the Pawtucket Municipal Court and a Rhode Island State Senator. Donna impressively speaks four languages—English, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese—and in her sparse spare time, you can find her traveling or dancing!
Nesselbush is a founding partner of Marasco & Nesselbush. Attorney Nesselbush is admitted to practice in Rhode Island, in the United States District Court, and in the United States Court of Appeals.
She is a 1984 graduate of Brown University, where she received the Sarah Doyle Prize “for having made a significant contribution to women on campus and in the community.” She graduated cum laude from Suffolk University School of Law, where she was selected to write for the Law Review, and was also awarded the Leo J. Wyman Award for having “contributed most to advancing the civic and professional responsibilities of a lawyer.”
She is a founder and the Chair of the Rhode Island Bar Association’s Social Security Disability Committee.
She is an active member of the American and Rhode Island Associations for Justice. She is a “sustaining member” of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.
Attorney Nesselbush serves as a Municipal Court Judge for the City of Pawtucket and is a Rhode Island State Senator.
In October 2014, Senator Donna Nesselbush had the honor of being inducted into Pawtucket Hall of Fame as Pawtucket’s first “Person of the Year”.