"When I got that phone call, it just lifted me up," Nicholas, 62, said. "My spirits were lifted up."

The Social Security Administration acknowledged early on that Nicholas had become too ill to work, and officials determined that he qualified for a $500 monthly benefit through the low-income disability program called Supplemental Security Income.

The agency denied him benefits under a program that would have paid him more. That program, Social Security Disability Insurance, is available to workers who have contributed enough payroll taxes into the system within a defined period of time. The difference in his case was about $1,500 per month.

Nicholas said he had put in 70-hour weeks at Holly Poultry in Baltimore as he worked his way up from delivering chicken to running the company. But by the time he was in his early 50s, a condition that began with chronic breathlessness rendered him too sick to work.

He left his job in the late 1990s and eventually went on to try his hand at running a salvage business. He bought dented cans and short-dated products from grocery stores and resold the merchandise to discount outlets.

Nicholas said that by 2002, he was relying more and more on his wife to run the business as his health declined. Eventually, the business fell behind on rent. The landlord locked them out and confiscated their forklifts, equipment and merchandise.

He filed his claim for disability benefits, was denied, and waited for years as the appeals process played out. Meanwhile, the Nicholases watched their standard of living slip away.

Yvonne Nicholas continued to work, but only part-time so she could continue to care for her husband. The couple also worried that the Social Security Administration would decrease the disability checks it sent to Nicholas if she earned more than part-time pay. His benefits were tied to the couple's income.

The couple moved from a Bel Air home into their daughter and son-in-law's house. By June 2006, they were living in a Dundalk apartment and seeking government assistance to help pay rent and buy food. Yvonne Nicholas took a housekeeper position at the apartment complex so she could stay close to her husband during the day.

Over the years, Nicholas' disability checks from Supplemental Security Income rose from $500 to $671, but the increase didn't cover their expenses.

Administrative Law Judge Robert W. Young rejected Nicholas' appeal in October 2006, three years after he first submitted his application. Nicholas appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., and the case was sent back to Young. He rejected it again in August 2009, based in part on the fact that Nicholas continued to work for a period after claiming he was disabled.

Eventually, Nicholas' case came before a second administrative law judge, Frances P. Kuperman, who approved his claim for disability insurance in May. His monthly benefits were set at $2,031.

Block, Nicholas' attorney, said a major sticking point for Young was the lack of medical records; the cause was a break-in at Nicholas' doctor's office. Social Security disability claims are won and lost on medical evidence, he said.

"A very significant problem with the system is that a lot of times when people lose their jobs, they lose their health insurance. And the medical evidence for those in need or who lack health coverage is just sparse," Block said. "This is what's happening to middle America. We see this every day."

After 30 years spent practicing law, Block said that Nicholas' back-benefits award is one of the largest he's seen. Many of his clients die waiting for the Social Security Administration to issue a decision, Block said.

Nicholas recalled the details of his struggle from a hospital bed in the living room of his Dundalk apartment. He struggles to make the walk to the bathroom or kitchen, and his apartment is too small for his electric wheelchair. Managing the two steps in and out of the home takes all of his strength.

"This room is my jail," Nicholas said.

The couple said the money is life-changing, but they have big concerns about their future needs and ability to manage their health care costs and living expenses. Yvonne Nicholas said she dreams of finding a new place to live, one where her husband can come and go freely.

"There has never been anything we could fall back on through all of it," Yvonne Nicholas said. "It's always been, 'If something happens, what do we do?' It's a terrible, terrible stressful feeling. Every day, I would think, 'What if he needs something?' It's every single day."

Since the court award, however, she's hopeful: "I feel a lot better knowing that should something happen, that's going to be there."