Students, Attorneys Launch Pro Bono Project to Help Disabled Veterans
Whether they served in World War II or Iraq, today's veterans are at the mercy of an aging U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health system and often have difficulty finding a lawyer to take their disabilities claims through specialized courts. A coalition of law students and area attorneys are working together to fill that need in a new pro bono project sponsored by the University of Virginia School of Law, Virginia Law Veterans, and the Charlottesville/Albemarle Bar Association.
"The war's been going on for a long time now. There's a lot of wounded soldiers that have come back to the States. I think everyone's aware that we haven't always done the best job of helping them," said Professor Chris Sprigman, who along with several student veterans helped instigate and organize the effort.
Their search for a way to help led them to the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), which runs a pro bono consortium of veterans groups and lawyers providing legal services to veterans. NVLSP attorneys led a standing-room-only training for students and local lawyers last fall on how to handle veterans' disability claims. They also offered two cases to their trainees, who split into two teams — one for each claimant.
The cases, one involving a Korean War U.S. Army veteran and the other a 1970s-era U.S. Air Force veteran, are on appeal to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C. Each team is led by a group of attorneys, with two student "senior associates" and about 20 student "junior associates" providing much of the legwork. Sprigman acts as an adviser to the senior associates.
The strong student turnout at the training "spoke volumes," said second-year law student Doug Andre, a senior associate for the case of the Air Force veteran and a retired Navy commander himself. "They came forward because of this issue, which a lot of people recognize as one worth doing."
Andre's team is attempting to establish that their client has a current medical problem with his back related to his military service.
"If we can establish that his injuries and his disabilities were in fact service-connected, then he has every right to expect the government to provide him with the benefits to deal with those disabilities," Andre said. "It's all about helping one person."
Andre is working with attorney Greg Webb, who is leading a team of volunteer attorneys from his firm, Michie Hamlett Lowry Rasmussen & Tweel, including Ron Tweel, Elizabeth Coughter, and Garrett Smith.
"I saw coverage about what's happened to veterans as far as receiving substandard medical treatment at home," said Webb, a U.S. Army veteran of the 10th Mountain Division in New York. The pro bono project "coincided with what I've been thinking and I decided to get involved."
Sprigman, whose brother serves in the U.S. Marines, called the effort a "pilot program," and hopes it will eventually become a more regularized program of the Law School.
"There's a huge backlog of disability claims in the system," Sprigman said. "The system moves very, very slowly. If a client gets a lawyer and the lawyer does a good job, you can present the case in a way that helps the system move a little more quickly. For a veteran who is disabled and who is having a hard time getting by, having the system move a little more quickly can make a huge difference in their life."
Local attorney and project team leader Cooper Geraty, a 1976 graduate of the Law School who focuses on civil disability cases, said many of his Social Security disability claims clients also were veterans. "It seemed to me to be a real unmet need. These are some of my most compelling clients," Geraty said.
Most private attorneys have little experience handling veterans' cases due to a post-Civil War-era rule under which attorneys could charge no more than $10 for cases before the Veterans Administration. Now lawyers can take such cases for veterans receiving their initial denial after June 2007 on a contingency basis, charging no more than 20 percent of past due benefits. Because the veteran receives 100 percent of the benefits moving forward, the attorney's fee could be a small percentage of the total settlement, Geraty explained. "It's very similar to the system of the Social Security Administration, which maxes out at 25 percent [of past due benefits]."
The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims handles appeals from the administrative Board of Veterans Affairs; the next level of appeals would be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, although they rarely take veterans' cases.
The system is so complex that students working on the cases are starting a repository of memos and briefs that will help future students navigate the world of veterans' claims, said third-year law student and senior associate Rebekah Shapiro. One of the reasons the system is unusual is because initially the opposing parties — the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the veteran — are working together. Only when the parties disagree over benefits do claims turn into appeals.
Shapiro, who wants to pursue a career in civil litigation, hopes to win her case and gain valuable experience at the same time. Her first assignment was to organize a claim file that was more than 800 pages, stuffed with medical records and correspondences, a task that required shepherding the efforts of student volunteers and drawing from her own experience working as a medical records clerk.
"I'm looking forward to writing a team brief," Shapiro said. "That's something neither my summer projects at law firms nor my law school experience has given me yet, and it's clearly a skill that transfers post-graduation."
Their case for the Korean War veteran includes claims regarding at least four medical issues and at least four legal issues. "Some of the issues should come down very much in our favor," she predicted.