Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

Providing clinical and pro bono opportunities to Harvard Law School students

Tag: Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic (page 1 of 2)

HLS Legal Services Center: A Veteran’s Story

via Harvard Law School YouTube

The Legal Services Center’s Veterans Legal Clinic provides legal representation to veterans and their family members when they cannot afford an attorney. The Clinic serves the legal needs of veterans in cases involving VA benefits, Massachusetts Veterans’ Services Benefits, discharge upgrades, and estate planning matters. Watch the story of how Paul, a Vietnam veteran who was denied veterans benefits for decades, was finally able to access those vital benefits thanks to the Veterans Legal Clinic.

New online tool tells Mass. veterans if they qualify for financial aid

Via Boston Herald

By Maria Szaniszlo

For years, Massachusetts has had a program that provides financial aid for food, housing, clothing and medical care to veterans and their dependents with limited incomes. There’s only one problem — many veterans have never heard of it.

On Tuesday, the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center unveiled the Massachusetts Veteran Benefit Calculator, an online tool the clinic created to help veterans easily determine if they’re eligible for financial assistance through the program known as Chapter 115.

“We’re proud to be able to launch it statewide this Veterans Day,” said Betsy Gwin, associate director of the Veterans Legal Clinic. “Spreading the word about this tool and increasing awareness about Chapter 115 benefits is something that is tangible; it’s a concrete thing that we can all do together right now to help support low-income veterans and their families in Massachusetts.”

Under Chapter 115, low-income veterans can be eligible for state financial assistance ranging from a few dollars to more than $1,000 per month if they fall below 200% of the federal poverty level and meet other eligibility requirements. But there has been a persistent gap between the number of veterans eligible for these funds and the number of veterans who actually apply for them.

A 2017 State Auditor’s Office report found that between 2014 and 2016, only 14,390 Massachusetts veterans received Chapter 115 benefits. The Veterans Legal Clinic estimates that thousands more are likely to be eligible. The Chapter 115 program also supports veterans’ dependents and survivors, Gwin said, but many are unaware of the program.

“No veteran or survivor in Massachusetts should be struggling to avoid homelessness, to keep the lights on or to feed their family,” she said, “and this financial assistance can make all the difference.”

Many veterans also are hesitant to ask for help, Gwin said.

“This is not a handout; it’s a hand up,” said Francisco Urena, Massachusetts secretary of veterans affairs. “Most of our veterans are successful upon returning home, but if certain circumstances of economy, circumstances of employment ever lead them to being without, the safety net programs that we have here in Massachusetts make that veteran a better candidate for success.”

Wesley Bigham, 31, of Abington enlisted in the Army in January 2011 and served in Afghanistan from January to October 2013.

“The first time I heard about Chapter 115 benefits was nearly five years after enrolling in VA care,” Bigham said. “… At that time, when I was struggling to find a job and attempting to resettle with my family, I had no idea Chapter 115 even existed. … We’re fortunate that we … were able to stay with our family.”

For more information, veterans should visit MassVetBen.org.

A Legal Safety Net at the Library

Via the Legal Services Center

Julia Schutt (right) of the Veterans Legal Clinic speaking to a client as interns Arielle Lui (left) and Sana Gupta (center) observe at the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair.

Picture this: you make the decision to go to college. To afford it, you take out hefty student loans. You work hard, push through, and complete your degree. With even more hard work, you are able to pay off your student loans. Then, out of nowhere, the government reaches out to tell you that you actually haven’t paid your loans. And that they want to collect. Now. Before you can even use your degree, the government starts to take all of your income. What do you do?

This is what happened to Maria*, whom we met at the Boston Public Library’s first ever Community Health Fair on Friday, May 24th. Maria came to the Fair seeking any help she could find, and she found us. As the only legal team at the event, we were thrilled that we were there to respond to legal needs like Maria’s.

Allyson Dowds, Health & Human Services Research Specialist for the BPL and the event organizer, invited us to attend, recognizing that access to legal resources is an integral part of community health: the Legal Services Center provides legal representation to clients fighting housing insecurity, financial abuse at the hands of for-profit colleges or other predatory organizations, unsafe situations in the home or within families, and facing adverse action by the IRS. In the Safety Net Project, we help veterans, disabled individuals, and low-income folks secure the income, food access, and health care they need to protect their material well-being. In short, we work to address a multitude of interrelated community health problems through legal advocacy.

Safety Net Project interns Sana Gupta (top left), Brittney Reed (top right), Arielle Lui (bottom left), and Ellie Schelleng (center) with Julia Schutt, project manager for the Veterans’ Legal Clinic, at the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair. Taking the picture is Julie McCormack, director of the Safety Net Project and coordinator of the People’s Law School.

As a law school clinical program, our mission to “Advocate. Educate. Innovate.” compels us to provide education not just to the law students and interns who join us throughout the year, but also to our community on their rights within the legal system, through our program The People’s Law School. We used our time at the Community Health Fair to do exactly that.

The Fair brought together several key players in the food security landscape, including Project Bread, the Department of Transitional Assistance, and the Department of Public Health. Connecting with folks from these organizations was especially important as we consider our role in closing the Massachusetts ‘SNAP Gap.’ The SNAP Gap refers to those eligible for, but not receiving, SNAP benefits – according to the Mass Law Reform Institute, over 700,000 Massachusetts residents who are likely eligible for SNAP are not receiving benefits. This summer the LSC is reopening our SNAP appeals intake; we will represent those who have been denied benefits when they should have been approved. By helping individuals in complex situations secure SNAP benefits, we hope to take part in a larger movement to close that gap and make food security a reality for all of low-income Massachusetts. Connecting with these groups allowed us to consider future partnerships and to gather materials so that we can increase outreach and education efforts through our office.

Also at the event were many incredible community partners dedicated to serving the people of the greater Boston area. We spoke with many, including representatives of Bay Cove Human Services and Samaritans Inc., about ways we can partner to better serve our communities and share resources – such as workshops and presentations. Often, legal problems are the cause of mental or physical health problems. Other times, the root cause of a legal problem is really a housing or food issue. It was vital for us to connect (and reconnect!) with the government, non-profit, and social service organizations working in health, food, and housing so that we all can provide our clients with the broadest base of assistance available. It is so rare that someone is facing only one issue – to get at the root causes of the problems facing our clients, we need to call on each other.

In addition to talking to partner organizations, we met many people interested in learning how we can help them. We provided advice and referral information on a range of issues including overpayment of benefits, predatory student loans, and veterans’ legal issues. Because our services are free, we don’t have the resources to take every case, so events like this are a great way to get information to people who may not otherwise have access to it. Maria wouldn’t have known about our services if we hadn’t been at the Health Fair.

Plenty of folks also came to our table who didn’t have a specific issue they needed help with; they just wanted to know what kinds of services we offer. We are always happy to talk about our services to anyone who will listen! In addition to providing general information about the Legal Services Center, Julia Schutt of the Veterans Legal Clinic attended the Fair to showcase the project she manages developing an online tool to help veterans and military families learn if they are eligible for state Chapter 115 benefits.

After the Fair, we followed up on Maria’s case and, after consulting with other advocates here at LSC, determined that Maria’s situation would best be handled directly by the Project on Predatory Student Lending. Maria will be directly assisted by our office, thanks to the opportunities provided at the Community Health Fair.

The Community Health Fair was an extremely useful event and we are glad to have been invited. We are excited to see it grow and hope to be included every year!

A Simple Online Legal Tool Helps Reduce Poverty for Military Veterans

Via the Legal Services Center 

The Veterans Legal Clinic at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) is piloting a new technology tool to help fight poverty among the state’s most financially vulnerable military veterans and their dependents and survivors. The tool is designed to increase access to vital safety net benefits that can help reduce financial insecurity, homelessness, and hunger in the Commonwealth’s veterans community.

If successful, the program could improve the lives of tens of thousands of low-income Massachusetts veterans — and thousands more of their family members — whose incomes are at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or lower.

The innovative project introduces an easy-to-use, web-based tool to determine potential eligibility, similar to an online tax preparation tool like TurboTax or an online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (Food Stamp) Calculator.  The new tool is called the Mass Vet Benefit Calculator, and is being launched through a public-private partnership between LSC and three local veterans’ services offices participating in the pilot.

Marrying legal expertise and tech to address poverty

“The ultimate goal of the project is to help reduce poverty among the Commonwealth’s veterans and military families,” says Daniel Nagin, Faculty Director of the Veterans Legal Clinic and LSC. “We can do so by leveraging our legal expertise and using new technology we’ve developed to more effectively link those in need to an underutilized veterans’ safety net program that already exists.”

“While the core role of LSC and the Veterans Legal Clinic is to represent clients, we also have a role in innovating to fight poverty, addressing gaps for people who may not have access to attorneys, and finding ways in which the marriage of technology and legal expertise can make a difference,” says Nagin. “The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator is intended to help pursue these broader goals.”

“Because of the technology’s design, this project has the potential to help us better understand how technology and online self-guided interview formats, informed by legal expertise, might help other vulnerable populations, such as people harmed by consumer fraud, those with family law cases, and immigrants,” he adds.

Low numbers of eligible veterans access Chapter 115 benefits

The Massachusetts Veterans’ Services Benefits Program – known as Chapter 115 for short because of the statute that authorizes the program – can provide monthly financial assistance that, depending on income and circumstances, can range from a few dollars per month to over $1,000 per month to eligible low-income veterans and their dependents. It can also provide reimbursements for out-of-pocket medical costs, emergency payments to prevent eviction, foreclosure or utility shutoffs, and funding for home repairs, moving costs, and transportation to medical appointments.

Yet, as state data shows, too few people are aware the program exists, and too few know if they are eligible or how to apply.

A 2017 report by the Massachusetts State Auditor urged that new strategies be undertaken to make the Chapter 115 program more accessible.  The report showed that between 2014-2016, only 14,390 individuals received Chapter 115 benefits.  Yet thousands more veterans in Massachusetts live at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below and would likely qualify for the program. Many thousands more dependents and survivors of veterans could also benefit – if they applied.

Recognizing the need to expand access for veterans and their families, the Veterans Legal Clinic initially developed an online self-help guide, and then began experimenting with a benefits worksheet that synthesized the complex eligibility criteria of the program into a two-page document.

Why not an online calculator to determine eligibility?

“We soon realized that easy-to-use online calculators exist for everything from preparing your tax return to applying for a mortgage and applying for SNAP benefits (Food Stamps), and wondered if we could convert our worksheet into an online calculator that anyone could easily access without professional help,” Nagin said.

Drawing on the software development savvy of William Palin at the Developing Justice program at Harvard Law School, Veterans Legal Clinic attorneys converted the worksheet into a series of simple online questions that a veteran or a family member, friend or advocate can answer. Once individuals answer the questions posed by the tool, they receive immediate analysis of whether or not they may be entitled to benefits, how much they might receive, how and where they can apply, and what documents might be needed to establish eligibility.

Addressing all likely scenarios

Working in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services and three veterans service officers or VSOs (the VSOs for Boston, Cambridge, and the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District) that were eager to be part of a pilot project, Veterans Legal Clinic Program Manager Julia Schutt and program evaluation colleagues from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a series of focus groups with VSOs, veterans themselves, and with family members and dependents. The goal: to ensure that the tool addresses all the likely scenarios that someone using it might present in an effort to qualify for Chapter 115 services and to make sure the tool was simple to use.

Further fine-tuning of the tool based on focus group feedback has been completed and the pilot study is being rolled out now in the Boston, Cambridge, and the Upper Pioneer Valley (which includes the towns of Ashfield, Bernardston, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Conway, Deerfield , Erving, Gill, Greenfield, Hawley, Heath, Leverett, Leyden, Monroe , Montague, New Salem, Northfield, Plainfield , Rowe, Shelburne, Shutesbury, Sunderland, Warwick, Wendell, and Whately). This pilot will both test the Mass Vet Benefit Calculator and strategies for increasing awareness of the Chapter 115 program.

“The Boston VSO conducts door-to-door outreach in subsidized housing complexes, particularly those for the elderly and disabled, to connect with veterans, dependents and survivors, for example,” says Schutt. “They can use the online tool on tablets to help complete eligibility screenings on the spot, for example.”

A game-changer

“The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator is a game-changer and is very handy during events,” notes Pierre Darius of the City of Boston Veterans Services. “Instead of asking the same questions over and over again, I can have the applicants answer the questions electronically in seconds.”

LSC Staff at Stand Down, where the benefits calculator was tested with veterans. From left: Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, Dan Nagin, Julia Schutt, Keith Fogg, clinical student Steven Kerns, Evan Seamone

“The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator is the quickest and easiest way to check on your Chapter 115 eligibility without a VSO,” he adds. “Answer the questions truthfully, and then you’ll get an eligibility determination instantly. Even if a person’s eligibility is Medical Only, it can be hundreds or thousands of dollars in reimbursements every month.”

“My staff and I look forward to the help the Mass Vet Benefit Calculator will provide to our veterans and their dependents,” says Timothy Niejadlik, Director of Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District. “By allowing them to begin the application process online, we hope they will contact us to answer questions and ensure they receive all the benefits they may deserve from the Commonwealth.”

Once the pilot phase is complete and lessons learned are implemented, a more intensive, statewide rollout of the tool will begin.

Using technology to access legal remedies, social services

“We believe technological innovation to help low-income individuals access social services and legal remedies can have a meaningful impact,” says Nagin. “It is critical that legal services providers continue to expand their toolkit.  Technology tools need to be harnessed to help us pursue our justice mission.”

(Updated November 6, 2019)

All in a Day’s Work

By: Alexis Farmer

The numerous clinics at Harvard Law School (HLS) are frequently successful in their pursuit of advancing justice. We often read of victories in court cases, positive reactions to dynamic presentations, and the formation of powerhouse partnerships, but how do the clinics get there? On any given day, HLS students, clinical instructors and clinical faculty are actively working on issues – preparing a brief, arguing a motion in court, giving a presentation to community leaders or clinical professionals, or collaborating with community partners on launching a policy initiative. On one particular day in early May, three clinics were in three different courts while others were fortifying partnerships on each of the coasts. The Office of Clinical Programs (OCP) got an inside scoop on what a day in a few of the clinics might look like, and they were just as busy as we suspected.

Tuesday, May 7th

Credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts
Source: Flickr

9:00am The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) heard oral argument in Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, a case about whether the public has a right of access to records from show-cause hearings in which the clerk magistrate, who presides over the hearing, finds probable cause, but decides not to issue a criminal complaint. The Boston Globe sued the heads of the trial courts last fall, arguing that public access to the records allows for transparency and accountability and is useful in determining whether there is an uneven application of justice in this part of the court system. The action came after The Globe reported that Massachusetts was the only state to have these proceedings out of the public eye and keep many of the documents confidential.

In amicus briefs, the ACLU of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) argued that the hearings provide privacy for subjects of criminal complaints prior to arraignment. The amici also expressed concern that opening records where no criminal complaint is issued could harm individuals’ ability to obtain housing or jobs. HLAB’s brief was written on behalf of Harvard Defenders, the only legal services organization in the state dedicated to pro bono representation of indigent defendants in criminal show cause hearings, and City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots community organization dedicated to fighting for racial, economic, social justice and gender equality. Executive Director of Harvard Defenders Dara Jackson-Garrett, who co-authored the brief, told Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, “Those who take out applications for criminal complaints often do not want to see the accused go to jail. Instead, they may just want to have the person apologize or get treatment for substance abuse.” A decision in the case is expected sometime late summer/early fall.

9:30am The Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC) at GBLS co-managing directors and HLS lecturers on law Nancy Kelly and John Willshire Carrera, HIRC assistant director and clinical professor Sabi Ardalan, and HIRC teaching fellow Zack Albun attended oral arguments in De Pena-Paniagua v. Barr, currently pending at the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The court held the hearing at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston. Ms. De Pena-Paniagua is challenging a Board of Immigration Appeals’ decision that denied her asylum application by construing Matter of A-B-, a 2018 decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to categorically foreclose asylum to applicants who argue they have a well-founded fear of persecution in the form of domestic violence perpetrated on account of their membership in a “particular social group.” Along with co-counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and HIRC director Prof. Deborah Anker, the HIRC attorneys submitted an amicus brief arguing Ms. De Pena-Paniagua qualified for asylum as a victim of persecution on account of her membership in a particular social group defined by female gender. HIRC alumnus Eunice Lee (Albert M. Sacks Clinical Teaching & Advocacy Fellow 2009–11) appeared on behalf of fellow amicus the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, arguing that Matter of A-B- itself conflicts with the applicable federal statutes and international treaties and should be overturned.

The three-judge panel expressed significant interest in the position advanced in HIRC’s briefing, asking attorneys for both Ms. De Pena-Paniagua and the Department of Justice several questions about her eligibility for relief on the basis advocated. The First Circuit has yet to issue an opinion squarely addressing the legal sufficiency of defining a particular social group by gender.

10:00am Clinical Professor of Law Dehlia Umunna of the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) and CJI student Jillian Tancil J.D. ’19 spent the morning at Roxbury District Court representing a woman that allegedly violated a protection order. The case was scheduled for a jury trial, but was resolved with pre-trial probation.

10:30am HIRC Clinical Instructor Cindy Zapata spoke on a panel about family detention at the AALS Clinical Conference in San Francisco, CA. The panel, entitled “Learning in Baby Jail: Lessons from Law Student Engagement in Immigration Detention Centers,” was a forum for reflection and learning best practices for preparing students to engage in work within family detention centers. The other panelists included Lindsay Harris, University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law; Erica B. Schommer, St. Mary’s University School of Law; Sara Sherman-Stokes, Boston University School of Law.

11:20am The Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic (EL&PC) submitted comments on behalf of a group of leading scientists on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Assessment Plan for methylmercury. Methylmercury is a common pollutant of air and water and highly toxic. The EL&PC’s comments provided recommendations, guidance, and support for the EPA’s reassessments and proposed studies.

Source: iStock

1:15pm The Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation’s (CHLPI) Health Law & Policy Clinic held a strategic planning call with the Transgender Law Center, as part of an initiative against the rollback of anti-discrimination protections for transgender and gender non-conforming people. The partnership, formalized in the summer of 2018, has led to conversations among legal experts about how to address and challenge reinterpretations of the Affordable Care Act and other civil rights protections. On May 24th, the Trump Administration released proposed changes to gender identity protections in health programs and activities. You can find CHLPI’s on-going analysis of the law here.

2:30pm The Legal Services Center’s Safety Net Project (LSC) and HLAB are representing a client as she appeals the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) decision to deny her disability benefits – the first joint representation between the programs. Despite extensive evidence of her inability to continue working due to symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression stemming from abuse both in childhood and during her marriage, the client’s claims have been denied at each stage of the appeals process and are now before the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. On May 7th, the LSC-HLAB team filed the client’s response memorandum and asked that the case be set for oral argument. The arguments center around the Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ) decision, without explanation, to give lesser weight to important evidence from the doctors treating the client, his mischaracterization of the record, various conclusory determinations that render judicial review impossible, and a series of findings that should have been entrusted to experts. HLAB/LSC clinical instructors Stephanie Goldenhersh and Julie McCormack and students Jeremy Ravinsky, JD ’20 and Bryan Sohn, JD ’20 are working on the case. The team is looking forward to their day in court in the fall, when Jeremy and Bryan will present the client’s argument before Judge Casper.

The John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse in Boston, MA.  Source: iStock

All day Sarah Downer and Katie Garfield, from the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, attended the Root Cause Coalition’s Annual Hill Day in Washington, DC. They used the event as an opportunity to educate legislators from both parties about the implications of laws like the Anti-Kickback Statute – a criminal statute that prohibits transactions to induce or reward services or items reimbursed by federal health care programs. Downer and Garfield were also invited to meet with staff from several legislative offices to discuss pathways to integrating critical food and nutrition services into the Medicaid and Medicare programs. Securing coverage of these new benefits within our public insurance programs would expand access to life-saving nutrition for vulnerable individuals living with chronic illness.

Learning to Serve

Casey Connolly, J.D. ’19 and Laurel Fresquez, J.D. ’19

By: Casey Connolly, J.D. ’19

I distinctly recall Betsy Gwin, a clinical instructor in the Veterans Legal Clinic, telling us on our first day: “You’ll never forget your first client.”

I was admittedly nervous to meet mine.  As a law student planning to enter the JAG Corps post-graduation with no prior military experience, I hoped that working in the Clinic would help me better understand and address the legal issues faced by service-members, veterans, and their families.  And the first step towards accomplishing those goals was actually meeting with a veteran and helping them work through their legal issues–a level of responsibility that felt overwhelming as a 2L who had never engaged in direct legal services before.  But with the training and support of the Clinic–which included extensive reading, exercises, and conversations with my clinical instructors and fellow students–I was able to feel more confident when walking into the room to meet with a client for the first time.  We started chatting, and soon I found myself mesmerized by the strength and optimism of a veteran who had faced unimaginable struggles in their lifetime.

From that day, I spent the next two years working with many other clients in a variety of ways that helped me hone my skills as a lawyer.  I performed client intake; interviewed witnesses; collected records; drafted letters of support, administrative appeals, and discharge upgrade petitions; and argued in an administrative hearing.

Then, in December 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims issued an order scheduling oral argument for two plaintiffs and a proposed class of veterans represented by the Harvard Veterans Legal Clinic and co-counsel Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick.  The argument was scheduled for February 1st, so when the Clinic offered me and Laurel Fresquez ’19 the opportunity to argue the case, we had six weeks to prepare.  This seemed like a daunting task given that neither of us had previously worked on the case.  But under the guidance of our supervising attorneys, we spent those next six weeks poring over briefing and case law, debating strategy, and building and mooting arguments.  This process allowed us both to further develop our skills as lawyers, and to gain deeper insight into the convoluted world of veterans law.

Our case tried to cut to the heart of that convolution by asking the Court to exercise its newly-announced class action powers to grant relief to a group of veterans who have been harmed by the VA Secretary’s application of an unlawful standard.  It was an honor to represent these veterans, who had the right to have their claims adjudicated under the correct standard–and who might not otherwise see that right fully vindicated without the class action mechanism.  I am grateful to the Veterans Legal Clinic and CCK for the chance to argue such an important and historic case alongside an incredible group of co-counsel and supervising attorneys.

And while this case was the most exciting and high-profile of the cases that I worked on with the Clinic, Betsy was right: I’ll never forget my first client.  In fact, that first client was also my last.  In spring of 2019, we received news from the VA that we had won that client’s administrative appeal after nearly 3 years of fighting (culminating in an extremely adversarial hearing that tested all of our resolve).  Walking into the local VA hospital with Betsy and the client to help them gain access to their newly awarded benefits was the quiet highlight of my law school career.  I am thankful to the Clinic and the client for trusting me with the sometimes-terrifying, sometimes-thrilling, always-rewarding responsibility of being an advocate.

Take Care of Soldiers, and Things Fall Into Place

By: Joshua Mathew, J.D. ’19

Josh Mathew, J.D. ’19

My involvement with the Veterans Legal Clinic (VLC) has been, by far, my most rewarding experience at Harvard Law School. Through the VLC, I supported diverse cases, developed a broad range of legal skills, found my passion for advocating for others as a litigator, and made some of my closest friends at Harvard.

A Broad Range of Cases and Skills

As a student advocate with the VLC, I worked on a variety of matters, including an Army veteran’s appeal of the VA’s denial of his G.I. Bill benefits, a former Marine’s application for VA healthcare and an honorable characterization of his service, and oral arguments on behalf of Massachusetts veterans who were wrongfully denied the Welcome Home Bonus. In addition, my work with the VLC and conversations with instructors at Harvard’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic motivated me to pursue independent research, under Professor Dan Nagin’s supervision, on California’s regulations aimed at guarding veterans against exploitation by for-profit colleges.

My diverse caseload at the VLC allowed me to build a set of skills that I know will make me a more effective advocate for others. Drafting the appeal for my client’s G.I. Bill benefits enabled me to develop my legal writing and research skills. Presenting oral arguments in the Welcome Home Bonus case with my classmate Laurel Fresquez ’19 substantially improved our oral appellate advocacy skills. We learned how to organize a concise outline of arguments and incorporate feedback from numerous moots. And throughout all of my cases, I developed my ability to interact with clients, solicit their intent, and ensure that our case strategy reflected their long-term goals and interests.

From left to right, Jack Regan, Dana Montalto, Josh Mathew, Laurel Fresquez ’19, a client in the case, and Dan Nagin.

Helping Ensure That All Are Welcomed Home

Presenting oral arguments with Laurel in the Welcome Home Bonus case at Suffolk Superior Court was certainly my favorite experience at the VLC. You can read more about the case and the favorable ruling here and here. Preparing for the hearing served as a reminder that no one gets there alone: Laurel and I spent countless hours brainstorming and debating how to craft the most effective opening and closing arguments. We rehearsed those arguments over and over again in front of our supervisors, others VLC students, and WilmerHale attorneys. These moots and the VLC’s supportive community of instructors, students, and friends provided the feedback that we needed to identify our most powerful arguments and address our blind spots.

Engaging with our clients was also a treat. When we received a positive decision from the judge in late December, it was a pleasure for me and Laurel to call our clients with the good news. Those phone calls, full of gratitude and warmth, are some of my fondest memories at Harvard Law.

Finding Purpose and Friends

Lastly, the VLC has had tremendous personal benefits for me. When I left the Army, I saw law school as a reset switch, and I did not have a clear vision of what I wanted to do as a lawyer. I enrolled in the VLC, in part, to find that purpose. A wise platoon sergeant had once advised me, “Take care of soldiers, and everything else falls into place.” As a platoon leader, I found deep satisfaction in supporting my soldiers, and through the VLC, I have found similar fulfillment in supporting veterans’ claims for education, healthcare, and disability benefits. In addition, through challenging and meaningful casework, I have discovered my passion for litigation as a means of advocating for others.

In the process, I have made some of my closest friends at Harvard Law. It might be that the Legal Services Center attracts exceptionally kind students, or that its instructors do a great job of fostering a supportive environment. In any case, I am grateful to have gained that community, and I look forward to staying in touch.

Learning by Doing: A Student’s Perspective from LSC’s Safety Net Project

Via the Legal Services Center

By: Bryan Sohn

Bryan Sohn, center, pictured with attorney David Young (left) and LSC Tax Clinic Director Keith Fogg at LSC’s 40th Anniversary on April 5, 2019.

Bryan Sohn, center, pictured with attorney David Young (left) and LSC Tax Clinic Director Keith Fogg at LSC’s 40th Anniversary on April 5, 2019.

Before law school, I spent four years working in the education and non-profit world. By the end of my 1L year, I was feeling frustrated about being trapped in the “HLS bubble.” Without a doubt, my courses were fascinating and my professors wonderful. But I felt disconnected. And so I decided to seek out clinics. I considered the education law and child advocacy clinics but realized that I should branch out beyond my comfort zone. I signed up for the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic at the Legal Services Center (LSC) in large part because it reminded me of my students (from my high school teaching days) who have gone on to join the armed forces. And I ended up making the best decision of my law school career so far. My time at the clinic has been extraordinarily formative: in fact, the wonderful team at LSC couldn’t get rid of me and I’m now back for a second semester as an advanced clinical student!

The Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic is divided into three projects: the Veterans Justice Project, the Estate Planning Project, and the Safety Net Project. I signed up for the Safety Net Project, which focuses primarily on Social Security benefits litigation. My wonderful supervisor, Julie McCormack, wasted no time in throwing me straight into the deep end. On my first day at the LSC, I was informed that I had a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ) the following week: I needed to get up to speed on Social Security law and draft that 15-page brief right away!

I quickly learned that this is a huge part of what makes the Safety Net Project and the Veterans Law Clinic so special. There is very little hand-holding. Students learn by doing. I was expected to the take the lead in building client relationships, building up medical records, and defining case strategies. Once I got staffed on a new case, I would spend several days wrestling with the facts and the law, shuttling back and forth between my carrel and Julie’s office. I would take the lead, but Julie was always available to share her support, wisdom, and incredible feedback despite having (at least) a gazillion other cases on her docket. Rinse and repeat. In my first semester, I ended up handling four ALJ hearings and three cases at the Appeals Council. The experience has supercharged my legal research and writing skills. I like to describe the LSC as a high-powered litigation boutique with a twist. Students take full responsibility for their cases and learn by tackling their cases head-on. But it’s a litigation boutique where the partners actually care about you. In fact, they are there precisely to support you. And most importantly, it’s a firm where the work itself is extraordinarily meaningful.

Above all, I will continue to treasure the relationships that I’ve built with our clients. My time at LSC has taught me what it means to lawyer as friend. So many moments come to mind: giving our client a hug after she broke down at the end of a successful hearing, finding out that a client who had suffered through post-traumatic stress disorder and over two dozen reconstructive surgeries would not lose her home because she had just won her benefits, and so much more. I’m so incredibly grateful to our clients for giving me the opportunity to be a part of their stories.

In my second semester at the clinic, I have continued to handle ALJ and Appeals Council cases. I am also partnering with a student at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau as we prepare to argue a Social Security appeal at federal district court. Briefs have been submitted and oral argument is scheduled for September. I am incredibly excited to continue my LSC journey and get our clients the results that they deserve!

Veterans Legal Clinic students argue case before federal court of appeals

Via Harvard Law Today 

The legal team litigating the proposed class action before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims included (from left): Emma Peterson and Zachary Stolz of Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick; Harvard Law students Casey Connolly ’19 and Laurel Fresquez ’19; and supervisors in the Veterans Legal Clinic Betsy Gwin and Daniel Nagin.

Earlier this month, Casey Connolly ’19 and Laurel Fresquez ’19, both students in Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic, presented oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims on behalf of a proposed class of veterans with multiple disabilities. The clinic and its partners commenced the litigation in 2017 to challenge a Department of Veterans Affairs’ policy used in adjudicating claims for service-connected injuries.

Specifically, the representatives are seeking to stop VA’s policy of imposing an unlawfully high evidentiary standard for veterans to prove that one disability has been worsened by a second disability connected to their military service.

The Court of Appeals, which sits in Washington, D.C., heard the argument in appeals involving two cases—Ward v. Wilkie, Case No. 16-2157, and Neal v. Wilkie, Case No. 17-1204. The cases were consolidated for joint disposition.

In both cases, the Veterans Legal Clinic contended, VA had used an unlawful evidentiary standard to deny these veterans’ claims for disability compensation. The VA’s regulations allow veterans to make claims for disabilities that result from an already service-connected condition. However, VA required these veterans and similarly situated veterans to show that one disability had “permanently worsened” the other disability—even though there is no such requirement in the governing statutes or regulations.

Credit: Courtesy of the Veterans Legal Clinic
Casey Connolly ‘19 and Laurel Fresquez ‘19, students in Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic, presented oral argument in the lawsuit before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims on February 1, 2019.

Connolly and Fresquez argued that the court should declare that VA’s evidentiary standard is unlawful, certify a class of veterans who have been harmed by VA’s policy, and issue an injunction requiring VA to amend its policies and take corrective action in the pending cases of all similarly situated veterans. An estimated six thousand plus veterans are in the proposed class.

Connolly, who argued first, and Fresquez, who presented rebuttal argument, fielded questions from the three-judge appellate panel on both the merits of the case and the motion for class certification. The entire argument lasted nearly 90 minutes. A decision in the case is expected this year.

Listen to the oral argument here.

“Working on the case was the most terrifying and rewarding thing I’ve done while at Harvard,” said Fresquez. “I am so grateful to the Veterans Legal Clinic for giving me this opportunity and for providing me the training I needed to feel confident in federal court. It was truly an honor to represent the proposed class of disabled veterans, and it’s an experience I will never forget.”

The Veterans Legal Clinic co-counseled the case with Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick(CCK), a law firm based in Providence, Rhode Island, and a national leader in the field of veterans law. The Clinic and CCK have partnered with Disabled American Veterans (DAV) to provide pro bono representation to disabled veterans before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The two veterans who are proposed class representatives in the case were referred by DAV.

“This case will provide valuable guidance for VA and for our nation’s veterans,” said CCK Partner Zachary Stolz. “It will help in understanding class action issues and will hopefully help veterans in proving some of their claims before VA. Connolly and Fresquez provided the veterans’ point of view with exceptional knowledge and exceeding clarity.”

Both Connolly and Fresquez have participated in the Veterans Legal Clinic over the course of multiple semesters, representing disabled veterans in appeals for VA and state benefits, and in discharge upgrade cases. Fresquez was also part of a team that recently argued and won a case in Massachusetts Superior Court on behalf of local veterans who were denied a state veterans bonus because of their less-than-honorable discharges. Upon graduation in May, Fresquez plans to join the law firm Simpson Thacher and Connolly will commission into the U.S. Navy JAG Corps.

“It was an honor to represent these veterans, who have earned the right to have their claims adjudicated under the correct standard—and who might not otherwise see that right fully vindicated without the class action mechanism,” Connolly said.

“We are proud of our Clinic students and their contributions to this important case,” said Betsy Gwin, associate director of the Veterans Legal Clinic. “We are hopeful that this class of veterans, all of whom suffer from multiple disabilities stemming from injuries incurred during military service, will finally be able to obtain justice at the Veterans Court.”

According to Clinical Professor Daniel Nagin, director of the Veterans Legal Clinic and the Legal Services Center: “Connolly and Fresquez worked long hours to prepare for the argument. Throughout, they demonstrated an unwavering commitment to their clients, a sophisticated understanding of the vital questions before the court, and incredible teamwork.”

In addition to Connolly and Fresquez, other Clinic students worked on the case at various stages of the litigation, including: Alyssa Bernstein ’19, Joshua Mathew ’19, Branton Nestor ’19, and Nathan Swire ’19.

Founded in 2012, the Veterans Legal Clinic provides pro bono legal assistance to disabled veterans and their family members across a number of areas of critical importance, including appeals regarding access to federal VA benefits and Massachusetts Veterans’ Services Benefits (Chapter 115 benefits), in discharge upgrade and correction of military records matters, in Social Security Disability appeals, and in estate planning matters. In addition to representing individual clients, the Clinic also pursues broader initiatives to improve the systems that serve the veterans community.

The Veterans Legal Clinic is one of five clinics operating out of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. Founded in 1979, the Legal Services Center will host a celebration of its 40th anniversary this year, on Friday, April 5. The 40th anniversary event will bring together faculty, graduates, current students, and current and former staff and feature a keynote address by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. For more information about the event, please visit the Legal Services Center 40th Anniversary Website.

 

CVLC Advances Veteran Law with Discharge Upgrade Practice Manual

Via Connecticut Veterans Legal Center

CVLC Discharge Upgrade Director Margaret Kuzma with LSC staff Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, and Dan Nagin.

Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) is pleased to announce a new partnership with the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) to significantly expand the field of veteran law by creating a comprehensive Discharge Upgrade Practice Manual for veteran advocates and an online, searchable Department of Defense decision interface. This national initiative is funded by the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

 

Learn more about the initiative.

Ensuring Veterans Aren’t Left Behind

Via the American Bar Association for Law Students 

Steven Kerns, 2L at Harvard Law School

Excerpt from “Law Students Speak: Why I Do Public Interest Work”

By: Steve Kerns, J.D. ’20

As a veteran, I came to Harvard Law School’s Safety Net Project within the Veteran’s Legal Clinic to help bridge the civilian- military divide. SNP offered me a chance to help civilians and veterans realize some part of
the American dream.

The veterans’ clinic serves civilians and veterans alike, and the SNP provides civilians and veterans with guidance through the Social Security, SNAP, Medicaid, and poverty prevention processes. We serve a strong legal need: Nearly 70 percent of Social Security applicants have no legal representation.

As a student, the clinic offered me a pathway to maintain the momentum I’d built up establishing my litigation skills in my summer at the California Attorney General’s office. The SNP gives me full responsibility for my cases: preparing an evidentiary record, interviewing clients, writing a legal brief, delivering oral argument, direct questioning of clients, cross-examining experts, and if a case is denied, preparing for the appellate argument.

A veteran recently told me that our team had changed his life. He was fond of saying that if it weren’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. He was falsely imprisoned, sexually assaulted as a child, and tragically self-aware of all of it.

Most painful was his nobility, his gentle demeanor, and his broken strength. He blamed no one. He accepted responsibility for more than just his actions—he accepted responsibility for the world. The military has a way of conditioning many of us not to seek help until it’s too late, to shoulder the blame for circumstances beyond our control— to grin and bear it. It’s our strength in war and, often, our undoing at home.

After combing through more than 500 pages of medical records and recruiting mental health experts to evaluate the long history of impairments and treatment, I put together a written argument that led the administrative law judge to make a decision on the record—telling us on the day of the hearing that he was approving the case for more than eight years of retroactive benefits. This highly unusual move happens only when the ALJ determines the case is clearly in the applicant’s favor and a hearing is no longer necessary.

Our client was spared having to dive deep into his trauma for the record. Realizing this, he was overcome with relief. And while we all shared a brief moment of joy, that veteran’s need is no less important than helping the civilians who walk through our doors. Our communities thrive together.

As President Eisenhower noted in his seminal Cross of Iron speech, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.”

I may not be able to change the status quo, but the SNP empowers me to help Americans left behind by perpetual war. Here, they’re not forgotten. Here, my mission is no different than it was in the Army: to serve the American people.

Veterans win lawsuit against Massachusetts over denial of Welcome Home bonus

Via MassLive

Source: Pexels

By: Shira Schoenberg

Three veterans who sued Massachusetts for denying them a Welcome Home bonus should receive the money, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled.

The ruling could affect an estimated 4,000 veterans who served multiple tours of duty and received an other than honorable discharge from the final one, according to the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, which represented the plaintiffs in the case.

Judge Michael Ricciuti found in a Dec. 21 decision that the interpretation of the law by Treasurer Deborah Goldberg’s office, which administers the bonus, and the Veterans’ Bonus Appeal Board was “erroneous as a matter of law, arbitrary and capricious.”

Lead plaintiff Jeffrey Machado said in a statement, “What really matters to me is that other Massachusetts veterans will be recognized for their honorable service to our country. It’s less about the bonus itself — it’s about what it represents.”

Goldberg spokeswoman Chandra Allard said Goldberg’s office is reviewing the decision and has not yet decided whether to appeal.

Massachusetts offers veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks a Welcome Home bonus as long as they receive an honorable discharge. The bonus is $1,000 for veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and $500 for those who served elsewhere for at least six months.

Machado, Herik Espinoza and Washington Santos all served multiple tours of duty, but received “other than honorable” discharges from the final one. Goldberg’s office and then the Veterans’ Bonus Appeal Board declined to pay the bonus. They cited the state law, which says the veteran must have been discharged “under honorable conditions.”

The veterans argue that they were honorably discharged from their initial tours of duty, so they should receive the benefit for those tours. They also note that less than honorable discharges often stem from conduct related to mental or physical problems that come from military service, like post-traumatic stress disorder.

All three served in Afghanistan and were diagnosed with PTSD, which they said led to their discharges.

In his ruling, Ricciuti said the Appeal Board should have given the veterans the bonus for their initial tours of duty. He notes that if a veteran came home between tours and applied for the benefit from the initial tour, he would receive it, even if he later re-enlisted. It would be “unjust,” Ricciuti writes, to deny a benefit to someone who re-enlists from overseas and does not apply for the bonus until after his final tour of duty.

Ricciuti wrote that it is up to the state board, not the military authority who grants the discharge, to decide who gets the Welcome Home Bonus. And he agreed with the veterans that the discharge form granting the “other than honorable” discharge only applied to the most recent tour of duty, not earlier tours.

Riccuiti referred the case back to the Veterans’ Bonus Appeal Board to reconsider its decision in light of the ruling.

Josh Mathew, one of the student attorneys in the Veterans Legal Clinic who represented the plaintiffs, said in a statement, “These veterans went above and beyond. They volunteered for Army Special Operations or for deployments to Afghanistan, and this decision properly recognizes their sacrifices.”

“The Newest Federal Court Experiment”: Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims speaks at Harvard Law School

Via the WilmerHale Legal Services Center

 

Chief Judge Davis and DAV National Adjutant Marc Burgess pose with staff of the Veterans Legal Clinic

On Thursday, November 8th, Chief Judge Robert N. Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims gave the 2018 Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Lecture at Harvard Law School to an audience of students, faculty, staff, and members of the veterans community.  The Chief Judge’s Lecture was entitled “The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims:  The newest Federal Court experiment, past, present and future.” Opening remarks were provided by the National Adjutant of DAV, Marc Burgess.

Chief Judge Davis—a Navy veteran who joined the Court in 2004—spoke about the history of veterans law, the origins of the Veterans Court, and present challenges facing the Veterans Court in its role reviewing benefit decisions of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Chief Judge Davis chronicled the evolution of veterans law from World War I to the present day, including discussion of the Veterans Judicial Review Act of 1988 that introduced court review for veterans claims and established the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Chief Judge Davis highlighted the need for continued innovation, noting how much “[o]ur veterans legal landscape has evolved from its early days,” and challenging audience members to use their own voices—as veterans, students, advocates, pro bono attorneys—to prompt the significant change required to provide the services that veterans will need in the future.

Chief Judge Davis also discussed the Court’s structure, accomplishments, and challenges. The Veterans Court is unique in terms of its exclusive jurisdiction over appeals from the Board of Veterans Appeals, as well as the way which the vast majority of appeals are decided by single-judge non-precedential decisions. The Veterans Court has a tremendous caseload, handling over 7,000 cases in 2018. Among its challenges, the Chief Judge stated that the Veterans Court is “grappling with how to efficiently decide more panels, decide class actions, and deal with an increasing case load.”

Looking ahead to the future of veterans’ law, Chief Judge Davis stressed the importance of pushing for overhaul of the veterans claims system. He stated that while many veterans are able to navigate the veterans claims system in a reasonable way, “any time it takes a veteran years to get a final decision on a claim, the system is broken.”

He ended his lecture by urging the veterans community to continue working towards positive change in the veterans claims system, pointing to the progressive evolution of veterans law over time. “Veterans law is maturing. The Court has carried out their vision of a place where veterans can go to get fair, efficient justice.” Finally, Chief Judge Davis left the audience with a call to action, declaring, “We have a voice. We need to start using it.”

 

After his lecture, Chief Judge Davis answered a range of questions from the audience, including the role of pro bono attorneys at the Court, the impact of presumptive diagnoses for disabilities, and the appellate reforms to be implemented under the Appeals Modernization Act.

The event was hosted by the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, in partnership with the HLS Armed Forces Association. The lecture was the 5th annual event in the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Speaker Series, sponsored the DAV Charitable Service Trust. The Speaker Series provides a forum for national leaders to address the critical issues facing our nation’s disabled veterans and to engage in conversation with the local community. Prior speakers include then-Secretary of the U.S. Navy Ray Mabus, the founder of the first veterans treatment court Judge Robert Russell, and former VA Secretaries David Shulkin and Robert McDonald.

Veterans Legal Clinic Welcomes DAV General Counsel for Conversation About His Role & Career Path

Via the Legal Services Center 

Christopher J. Clay, General Counsel of Disabled American Veterans (DAV), shared his perspectives on current challenges facing disabled veterans and his experiences as general counsel of national non-profit organization during a talk at Harvard Law School on October 2. The event was hosted by the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, and was cosponsored by the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, Armed Forces Association, National Security and Law Association, and The Transactional Law Clinics.

Clinical Professor Daniel Nagin—director of the Veterans Legal Clinic—gave opening remarks, introducing both Mr. Clay and Richard E. Marbes, Chair of the Board of Directors of the DAV Charitable Service Trust, who was in attendance at the event. Nagin described DAV’s role as an important resource for veterans seeking access to benefits and supportive services. This year marks the sixth year that the DAV Charitable Service Trust has provided funding to support the work of the Veterans Legal Clinic.

Mr. Clay—a Ph.D-trained philosopher turned lawyer—spoke about his background, his unique career path, and his duties as the general counsel of a large nonprofit.  He answered questions from the audience on a wide range of topics, including how DAV collaborates with other veterans organizations, DAV’s relationship with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and whether the role of general counsel differs between non-profit and for-profit organizations.

Mr. Clay also discussed DAV’s origins, structure, and accomplishments. DAV is a congressionally-chartered organization that was founded in Cincinnati with about 20 members and has now grown to over 1 million members. DAV offers a range of services to veterans, from no-cost advocacy before the VA to free rides to medical appointments. According to Mr. Clay, DAV handled over 250,000 VA disability claims last year and has donated over 4,000 vans and countless volunteer hours over the past few years to transport veterans to medical appointments at VA medical centers nationwide.

In addition to helping veterans access benefits and services, Mr. Clay discussed how DAV has sought to encourage veterans to live fuller lives. One program brings together severely disabled veterans to participate in winter sports and other activities that, Mr. Clay said, help veterans feel that “if I can do this, I can do anything.” Finally, he emphasized that the DAV’s veteran members are the ones that ultimately run DAV, which “ensures that the passion that began DAV remains with DAV.”

LSC Engages in Outreach to Homeless Veterans at Stand Down 2018

Via The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School 

LSC’s Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, Dan Nagin, Julia Schutt, Keith Fogg, Steve Kerns, and Evan Seamone volunteering at Greater Boston’s Stand Down 2018

A team of volunteer students and staff from LSC partnered with Veterans Legal Services to provide legal advice to over 120 veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness at Greater Boston Veterans Stand Down 2018. The event, which was held on Friday, September 7, at City Hall Plaza, brings together over 100 community providers in order to provide veterans with access to medical, housing, employment, legal, and other services.

Alongside Veterans Legal Services and pro bono attorneys, LSC staff volunteered in the legal assistance tent to advise veterans on areas of law such as VA benefits, Chapter 115 state veterans’ benefits, other public benefits, tax debt issues, and discharge upgrades. In addition to offering legal advice, LSC staff provided referrals to other service providers and in a few cases has followed up to explore potential legal representation.

Clinic Attorney Evan Seamone, whose work is supported through a generous grant from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office in order to provide legal assistance to underserved veterans, reflected on the impact of Stand Down as an outreach event:

“In a noteworthy trend this year,  a number of veterans at the legal tent shared that they had learned valuable information at the Stand Down after years of failed attempts. An answer awaited them, but finding it had been a major hurdle. This year’s Stand Down underscored the incomparable value of concentrating essential services and resources in a single and accessible place.”

The event was coordinated by the New England Center and Home for Veterans.  More photos from the event are online here.

 

Is VA Wrongfully Excluding Hundreds of Thousands of Veterans from Needed Care

Via Veterans Legal Clinic

In a publication of the Penn State Law Review, Dana Montalto of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, along with colleague Bradford Adams of Swords to Plowshares, provides a legal history and analysis of how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determines who is eligible for basic health care and support services – and who should be excluded.  Although the 1944 GI Bill of Rights makes clear that only those veterans who “engaged in severe or repeated misconduct without explanation” should be barred from receiving benefits, Montalto and Adams argue that the VA incorrectly interprets the law, thereby unfairly preventing hundreds of thousands of former service members from receiving needed benefits.

Since World War II, the VA has been required to provide veterans’ benefits to all service members who left under conditions classified as “other than dishonorable,” so that only those who received or should have received a “dishonorable discharge” should be barred.  Service members who engaged in less severe misconduct, who were experiencing mental illness, or who suffered from other hardships should still be eligible for benefits.  Montalto explains that the VA has improperly implemented Congress’s statutory standard, excluding former service members for minor disciplinary problems during service and failing to consider extenuating or mitigating circumstances.

Montalto and Adams propose that the VA adopt a more holistic approach when determining whether a veteran is eligible for benefits.  Some changes to the VA’s eligibility review procedure could include starting with a presumption of eligibility instead of ineligibility for former service members, including a consideration of positive or mitigating factors in each eligibility case, and providing access to basic healthcare while eligibility reviews are pending.

Read the entire article

For more information regarding the Veterans Legal Clinic’s advocacy on behalf of veterans with bad paper discharges, read the following publications:

Underserved

Petition to amend regulations restricting eligibility for VA benefits based on conduct in service

VA Secretary Shulkin Discusses Needs of Disabled Veterans During Visit to Harvard Law School & Veterans Legal Clinic

Via Veterans Legal Clinic

For the fourth year in a row, the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School gathered together veterans, veterans service organizations, government officials. community providers, veterans advocates and lawyers, and law students for an event focused on the needs of disabled veterans. On Thursday, November 2, 2017, Dr. David Shulkin, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, delivered the 2017 DAV Distinguished Speaker Lecture at Harvard Law School. The event was co-hosted by the Veterans Legal Clinic and Harvard Law School’s Armed Forced Association.

Alan Bowers, former National Commander of DAV, introducing VA Secretary Shulkin at HLS

Introductory remarks were given by former National Commander of DAV, Alan Bowers, a disabled combat veteran of the Vietnam War. Mr. Bowers described the community’s shared goal to care for veterans who are injured or ill as a result of their military service. “May the work of Harvard Law, the DAV, and the VA keep the promises that we make to the men and women who enlist in our armed forces of the United States of America, past and present. Keep the promise.”

Secretary Shulkin spoke about the challenges facing the VA, the VA’s efforts to serve the current needs of veterans, and his approach to leading the second largest federal agency.  Among other topics, he discussed veteran suicide, the needs of veterans with less-than-honorable discharges, innovations in the delivery of healthcare for veterans, and benefits appeal system reform. Speaking about the 2014 VA healthcare waitlist crisis, Shulkin said, “Our success is the trust of the veterans we serve and we clearly lost that trust.” Describing his approach when he took over as Secretary, he explained, “The only way I know how to go about regaining that trust is by being open and transparent about problems and as you’re fixing problems letting people know.”

Continue reading

Shulkin seeks to increase service and accountability at Veterans Affairs

Via Harvard Law Today

On Thursday, Nov. 2, Dr. David Shulkin, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, will deliver the 2017 Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Lecture at Harvard Law School. This is the fourth annual event in the DAV Distinguished Speaker Series, which provides a forum for national leaders to address the critical issues facing our nation’s disabled veterans and to engage in conversation with the local community. The series is co-hosted by the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School and the Harvard Law School Armed Forces Association.

In advance of his visit to the law school, Secretary Shulkin answered a few questions about the Department of Veterans Affairs and its service to veterans:

Dr. David Shulkin, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Dr. David Shulkin, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

A VA study found that 20 veterans commit suicide each day. What is the Department of Veterans Affairs doing to increase the availability of mental health services for all our veterans? And what is being done to increase the availability of these services for individuals who — due to PTSD or other mental health issues developed while in service — may have left the military with less than honorable discharges and are therefore may not be eligible for existing veterans benefits?

Nothing is more important to me than making sure that we don’t lose any veterans to suicide. Twenty veterans a day dying by suicide should be unacceptable to all of us. This is a national public health crisis and it requires solutions that not only VA will work on but all of government and other partnerships in the private sector, nonprofit organizations.

Within weeks of becoming Secretary, I authorized emergency mental health services for those who were less than honorably discharged. That  population of veterans is at very high risk for suicide. Under this initiative, former service members with an OTH (Other Than Honorable) administrative discharge may receive care for their mental health emergency for an initial period of up to 90 days, which can include inpatient, residential or outpatient care. During this time, VHA and the Veterans Benefits Administration will work together to determine if the mental health condition is a result of a service-related injury, making the service member eligible for ongoing coverage for that condition.

Continue reading

Veterans Legal Clinic Files Class Action Against Massachusetts Treasury on Behalf of Veterans with Bad-Paper Discharges

Via Veterans Legal Clinic

Jeffrey Machado, one of the lead plaintiffs, while serving in Afghanistan.

Jeffrey Machado, one of the lead plaintiffs, while serving in Afghanistan.

On June 29, the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School filed a class action lawsuit in Massachusetts Superior Court on behalf of Army combat veteran Jeffrey Machado and an estimated 4,000 veterans from Massachusetts who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere since 9/11 but are considered to be undeserving of the state’s $1000 Welcome Home Bonus given to servicemembers when they are honorably discharged from the military.

The lead plaintiffs in this suit are two former Soldiers from Massachusetts who deployed to Afghanistan, honorably completed their enlistments, re-enlisted so that they could continue serving their country, and then later left the military with a bad-paper discharge assigned to their final enlistment periods.  Both are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related to their deployments and experienced family and health issues that contributed to the conduct that led to the bad-paper discharges.

The Massachusetts Legislature created the Welcome Home Bonus in 2005, continuing a long tradition of providing benefits to returning servicemembers from Massachusetts. However, the Massachusetts State Treasury, which is charged with administering the Bonus program, recently decided that the two veteran plaintiffs were not eligible for the Welcome Home Bonus because their final enlistment periods ended with bad-paper discharges, despite the fact that their prior enlistments during which they had deployed had ended with honorable discharges.

Continue reading

“My time with the Veterans Legal Clinic has been extremely rewarding”

By Vetan Kapoor, J.D. ’17

Vetan Kapoor, J.D. '17

Vetan Kapoor, J.D. ’17

Last year, a Vietnam-era veteran who served in the Navy honorably for several years asked the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for help. He had a dental condition that required emergency medical treatment, but could not afford to pay for the procedures and his insurance did not cover the full costs. Massachusetts offers veterans below a certain income threshold financial assistance for such emergencies, but the veteran must first apply, and the application must be approved by a city caseworker and the state’s Department of Veteran Services.

So, the veteran applied, provided evidence of the serious nature of his condition, and submitted his dentist’s proposed treatment plan. His application was improperly denied, and the veteran spent the better part of a year trying to find some way to obtain the care he needed. The reason for the denial? A caseworker wrongly decided that money the veteran had borrowed to pay for a graduate degree enabling him to serve as a counselor for other veterans disqualified him from receiving assistance.

Over the past year, I have represented this veteran and several others through the Veterans Legal Clinic. I have had the honor of representing clients before the state’s administrative agency, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the federal Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Each matter has brought its own set of challenges and learning experiences. For example, my work in the emergency benefits case involved tough negotiations with the General Counsel of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services, informal advocacy, coordination with the veteran’s caseworker, and appearances before a magistrate judge. Eventually, the state agreed to provide the veteran with the financial assistance he needed to receive treatment.

My time with the Veterans Legal Clinic has been extremely rewarding. I have learned a great deal about how the law impacts the veteran community on a daily basis, and have honed my negotiation, advocacy, and legal writing skills. But the most gratifying aspect has been the interactions I have had with my clients. Being able to learn about their lives, to hear some of their stories, and to fight for successful outcomes in their legal cases has been one of the highlights of my time here at Harvard Law School.

Massachusetts is home to about 330,000 veterans, 27% of whom have some form of disability. Nationwide, over 3.8 million veterans have a disability, while nearly 1.5 million live in poverty. I am very thankful to the Clinic for giving me the chance to learn more about the issues impacting veterans and to make a modest, positive impact in the lives of some of those who have served our country. There remains more work to be done!

The case that defined our experience at the Veterans Legal Clinic

By Elizabeth Petow Mayo,  J.D. ’17 and
Maile Yeats-Rowe, J.D. ’17

We enrolled in the Veterans Legal Clinic our first semester of 2L year, after having attended the informational session together as 1Ls. We both wanted to do legal services work during law school, learn more about litigation, and work directly with clients. The Veterans Legal Clinic was the perfect opportunity.

Like most students in the clinic, we each handled 4-5 cases of varying complexity throughout the semester. One case, however, defined our experience. On our first day, we were told that we would be working as partners on an appeal at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (an Article I Court) arising from a veteran’s denial of benefits at the VA. Our new client suffered from posttraumatic stress as the result of an in-service sexual assault that had occurred decades prior, but had been repeatedly denied disability benefits by the VA. We ended up working with the clinic for the next year and a half to see the case through.

Over the duration of our representation, we used nearly every litigation skill that the clinic aims to develop. We conducted legal research, wrote memos, negotiated with VA attorneys, and successfully persuaded the VA to remand our case back to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, the agency’s internal appeals board. At that point, we had the opportunity to develop additional evidence to support our client’s claim, which included interviews with our client, research into her condition, FOIA requests and the recruitment of expert witnesses. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we diplomatically pestered officials at the VA to ensure that our client’s claim, which had been in the VA system for several years already, was quickly resolved.

Over the course of our time at the clinic, we learned how important it was for us to be advocates for our client. The claims adjudication process at the VA is intended to be non-adversarial and “veteran-friendly.” Even when the system is designed to work in their favor, many claimants struggle to effectively communicate the merits of their case to the VA or simply need someone who believes them when the VA does not. These cases, which require committed, focused and thorough lawyering, are exactly the kind of cases handled by students at the Veterans Legal Clinic.

Judge Russell Reflects on the Founding and Future of Veterans Treatment Courts

Via Legal Services Center

lecture-6

Judge Russell delivered the 2016 DAV Distinguished Lecture on Veterans Treatment Courts

“It is not often that one gets to sit in and listen to a pioneer. Today we are going to have that opportunity,” said senior Disabled American Veterans (DAV) leader, David Gorman, of the Honorable Robert Russell, the 2016 DAV Distinguished Speaker. Pioneer is an accurate description of Judge Russell, who founded the nation’s first Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo, NY in 2008.   He started and continues to lead the movement to create adjunct court systems designed specifically to meet the needs of our nation’s veterans.

On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, Judge Russell delivered the 2016 DAV Distinguished Speaker Lecture at Harvard Law School. Reflecting on his January 2008 founding of the Erie County Veterans Treatment Court, Judge Russell explained that the idea came to him after noticing an increased number of veterans appearing before him in two existing problem-solving courts: the Drug Court and the Mental Health Court. He recognized that many veterans have a difficult time readjusting to life after service, a struggle which makes this community more vulnerable to mental health issues and addiction. The unique circumstances surrounding veterans inspired Judge Russell to ask the question, “What can we do to afford the best opportunities for our veterans?” His answer was to propose a court program designed specifically to address the underlying needs of veterans in the criminal justice system and connect them with the benefits and treatment that they earned in service.

Continue Reading

Invisible Wounds of War

Via HLS News

Helping veterans recover from sexual trauma

Invisible Wounds of War Veterans Clinic HLB Fall 2016

Credit: Illustration by Shonagh Rae

The challenge came two years ago: A U.S. Marine Corps veteran needed help. She’d been sexually assaulted by another Marine in the late 1960s. Decades later, she told VA officials, who didn’t believe her story and denied her disability compensation to help treat her post-traumatic stress. Could Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center help?

Since then, students and staff at the center’s Veterans Legal Clinic have rallied behind her case and scored a key victory on her behalf. It’s part of a growing area of practice for the 4-year-old clinic. Military sexual trauma—rape or sexual harassment during military service—is a fast-emerging issue in the nation’s care for veterans.

“It’s exactly the kind of case you want to work on,” says Harvard Law student Maile Yeats-Rowe ’17, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Kuwait. “It’s a case where we can make a real difference, and maybe move the needle on how the VA sees this.”

The Veterans Legal Clinic was founded to deal with the special problems of low-income veterans and to help bridge the nation’s military-civilian divide.

Continue Reading

LSC Hosts the DAV Distinguished Speaker Series on Veterans Treatment Courts

Via Legal Services Center

Judge Robert RussellOn November 9th, the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School will host the third annual Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Speakers Series featuring Judge Robert Russell, founder of the nation’s first Veterans Treatment Court. Judge Russell’s lecture begins at 12pm in Ames Courtroom, in which he will reflect on his founding of the Court in Buffalo, NY, and the future of the Veterans Treatment Court movement across the nation. The event will commence with opening remarks by our honored guest, retired Executive Director of DAV National Services and Legislation, David Gorman and with brief introductions by Daniel Nagin, the Faculty Director of LSC and the Veterans Legal Clinic and Vice Dean for Experiential and Clinical Education. A boxed lunch will be served at this time, for those who register here.

Following the lecture, Judge Russell will join a discussion panel alongside our three other distinguished guests:  Judge Eleanor Sinnott (Boston Municipal Court), Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan (Dedham District Court), and Major Evan Seamone (USAR, Professor at Mississippi College School of Law) to discuss the challenges and opportunities of veterans treatment  courts going forward.  The panel discussion will be moderated by Betsy Gwin, Clinical Instructor and DAV Charitable Service Trust Fellow, of LSC’s Veterans Legal Clinic.

For more information and to register, please visit https://davspeakerseries2016.eventbrite.com

Veterans clinic files rulemaking petition on access for veterans with ‘bad-paper’ discharges

Via HLS News

Underserved_cover_borderMore than 125,000 veterans who have served since 9/11 are denied access to basic services like health care by the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to a report by the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School. The report, “Underserved,” presents new findings about how the VA’s regulations exclude hundreds of thousands of veterans with “bad-paper” discharges, contrary to the text and intent of the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, which established the current VA eligibility standard. The clinic issued the report on behalf of two veterans advocacy organizations, Swords to Plowshares and the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP).

“Congress meant for the VA to provide basic services to nearly all the men and women who served in uniform,” said Dana Montalto, an attorney and Liman Fellow in the Veterans Legal Clinic. “Yet, the VA’s regulations have operated to exclude more and more veterans from getting the care and support that they deserve.”

The Clinic found that 6.5 percent of veterans who have served since 9/11 are excluded from the VA — twice the rate for Vietnam era veterans and nearly four times the rate for World War II era veterans. Many of those veterans have mental or physical injuries because of their service, and many served in combat or other hardship conditions, but nevertheless cannot get health care, disability compensation, or other supportive services because of the VA’s regulations.

“Since the Veterans Legal Clinic opened our doors in 2012, we have heard from scores of veterans who wrongfully or unjustly received less-than-honorable discharges,” said Clinical Professor Dan Nagin, who directs the Veterans Legal Clinic. “There exists a dearth of legal resources for these veterans, and our students have represented many in correcting their discharges and gaining access to the basic services that they deserve.”

Students in the clinic have represented an Iraq War veteran who was less-than-honorably discharged for one-time drug use on the night that he attempted to commit suicide, a post-9/11 veteran who was wrongfully discharged on the basis of an incorrect diagnosis of personality disorder, and a veteran discharged for his sexual orientation under the now-repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

The clinic has been able to continue to expand its work in this area since the arrival of fellow Dana Montalto in 2014. In addition to providing representation to more veterans, she has established the Veterans Justice Pro Bono Partnership, which trains and supports private attorneys to represent veterans in discharge-upgrade petitions. Montalto has also spearheaded systemic reform initiatives, including writing the report “Underserved”.

Continue Reading

Report: VA unfairly denied services to 125K post-9/11 veterans

Via Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs is wrongfully denying services to roughly 125,000 post-9/11 veterans with other than honorable discharges, according to a joint study released Wednesday by two veterans advocacy groups and Harvard Law School.

Some veterans are missing out on benefits such as healthcare, housing help for the homeless and disability services, in part, because the VA’s own rules are in contravention of the original GI Bill of Rights passed by Congress in 1944, according to the study. That represents roughly 6.5 percent of post-9/11 veterans, including more than 33,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Veterans who have served since 9/11 are being excluded from the VA at a higher rate than any other generation of veterans,” said Dana Montalto, the study’s author and a Liman Fellow with the Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic. “They’re being denied very basic services.”

Continue Reading

Additional Coverage

Report Finds Sharp Increase in Veterans Denied V.A. Benefits (New York Times)

Benefits being denied to veterans?  (CNN)

Fighting for Veterans, Learning the Law

Right Now | Pedagogy Meets Practice

Daniel Nagin, faculty director of the clinic (right), and Andrew Roach, J.D. ’13, meet with a veteran in Jamaica Plain.
Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Law School Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic

Via Harvard Magazine

The letter right on time—and for Wilson Ausmer Jr., that turned out to be a very bad thing. It was 2011, and Ausmer, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, was in Afghanistan, serving his third tour of duty overseas. The decorated soldier had already paid a personal price to serve his country: he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to his time on the battlefield, and had incurred a significant foot injury as well.

The letter, mailed to his home in Missouri, contained invaluable information on how he could file an appeal for disability compensation. It also stated that he had to respond within 120 days of receipt.

Ausmer wouldn’t return home for another five months. By the time he read the letter, he’d lost his one chance to appeal his benefits case. The Veterans Benefits Administration wasn’t going to help him—but a trio of Harvard Law School (HLS) students did. Bradley Hinshelwood, J.D. ’14, Juan Arguello, J.D. ’15, and Christopher Melendez, J.D ’15, took up Ausmer’s case, arguing, among other things, that the clock on an appeals claim should start only after a veteran has returned home, rather than when a letter arrives in his or her hometown mailbox.

The student lawyers became involved in Ausmer’s case in 2013, while interning at the HLS Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic, within the school’s WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC). Each year since 2012, when the clinic was established in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, dozens of students have assisted veterans with legal cases, winning verdicts of local and national importance.

Continue Reading

Using law to protect veterans

Via Harvard Gazette

Credit: Heratch Photography While flying air missions in Afghanistan, Anne Stark said her greatest concern was protecting soldiers on the ground. As a student at Harvard Law School, she sees yet another way to protect those who have served their country.

Credit: Heratch Photography
While flying air missions in Afghanistan, Anne Stark said her greatest concern was protecting soldiers on the ground. As a student at Harvard Law School, she sees yet another way to protect those who have served their country.

Harvard students who have served in the armed forces represent a diverse range of backgrounds and experience, but all have one thing in common: a profound dedication to serving the nation, under the most perilous of circumstances.

Fifteen active-duty or veteran soldiers have matriculated at Harvard Law School (HLS) this year. Among those who have shared their perspectives on their service and their experiences at Harvard is Anne Stark. In honor of Veterans Day, HLS profiled three of its students, including Stark. To read additional profiles, visit the HLS website.

Anne Stark, J.D. ’18

During her 10 months as company commander in a U.S. Army attack reconnaissance battalion in a volatile region of Afghanistan several years ago, Anne Stark, J.D. ’18, commanded a company that was responsible for the daily operations of a 500-soldier battalion. Charged with all aspects of her soldiers’ welfare, equipping, and training, Stark was so exceptional at her job that she was recognized as one of the top five commanders in the 47-commander brigade, according to the brigade commander.

As pilot of an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, Stark also flew 150 hours in combat operations in Afghanistan, heading out three or four times a week for eight-hour missions to protect soldiers on the ground. Though she was company commander with significant responsibility, there were never enough pilots to fly missions, so she and every other qualified Apache pilot pitched in.

“The area we were stationed in in Afghanistan was at the time, and still is, very volatile, so there was heavy demand for aviation assets,” said Stark, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and one of the few women in her battalion who can pilot the Apache, which carries missiles, rockets, and reconnaissance equipment. “Insurgents recognize what the Apache looks and sounds like and they very rarely attack a convoy if it’s being protected. I feel being in that role was a real privilege for me.”

While acknowledging the inherent danger of air missions, Stark — who graduated in the top 10 percent of her class in the Army’s Aviation career course — said her greatest concern was protecting soldiers on the ground. “If you ask any Apache pilot, they’d say if they were afraid of one thing, it’s that we wouldn’t do the best we possibly could to support troops, that we didn’t get there quickly enough or deploy our weapons systems quickly enough to save American lives,” she said.

Stark, whose parents both served in the U.S. Marine Corps, grew up in Ohio; at West Point, she majored in physics and earned the highest class rank in all nuclear physics classes as well as in political analysis and physical geography. Named a 2005 Marshall Scholar, she earned a master’s degree in technology policy at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, then a second master’s degree, in Middle Eastern and Central Asian security studies, at the University of St. Andrews, where she played rugby.

During a college summer shadowing an Apache pilot on an Army base in Korea, Stark became fascinated with the helicopter. After graduating St. Andrew’s, she entered the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence in Fort Rucker, Ala., where she met and married a fellow Apache pilot, Capt. Aaron Stark, a 2017 M.B.A. candidate at Harvard Business School. The couple was assigned as platoon leaders at the same Army base in Colorado, then sent to Germany as company commanders. Shortly after arriving, they were deployed to different parts of Afghanistan, Anne Stark to a region near the Pakistan border.

As headquarters commander, she learned that many of her soldiers struggled with serious financial problems. “I realized many of them have exorbitant loans at high interest rates,” said Stark, who became a coordinator for Financial Peace University, a financial literacy course for soldiers and their families. “It outraged me a bit that these less-than-reputable companies were targeting soldiers, and that got me interested in the legal and policy side of the regulation of the financial industry.”

Her final assignment before leaving the army, as chief of relocation operations, involved relocating — from Germany to the United States — her battalion and its operations, including 55 families and $10 million in equipment. Stark then matriculated at HLS, which she chose because of its Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic, which assists military veterans with a range of legal issues. “That attracted me because of what it communicated about the University’s culture and its values,” she said. Veterans “are a population who are underserved.” Although she hasn’t decided what direction her legal career will take, “because of my background, it’s a population I’d be very interested in serving.”

LSC Volunteers at Stand Down Event for Veterans

Legal Services Center staff at Stand Down 2015

From L-R: Julie McCormack, Robert Proctor, Chris Melendez, Kristin Antolini, Tammy Kolz Griffin, Dana Montalto, Maureen McDonagh, Julia Devanthery, Roger Bertling, Betsy Gwin, Keith Fogg, Dehlia Umunna, Nnena Odim, and Daniel Nagin. (Not pictured: Lisa Bernt)

Via Legal Services Center

On Friday, August 28, 2015, attorneys and volunteers from the Legal Services Center participated in Massachusetts Stand Down 2015 and provided free legal assistance to scores of homeless and at-risk veterans.

Stand Down, organized by the New England Center for Homeless Vets, is a day-long event that provides an opportunity for veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless to connect with service providers. In addition to legal assistance, services included housing and job assistance, clothing provision, medical and dental care, haircuts, and free meals. The event was held in tents set up by the Massachusetts National Guard in the parking lot of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 103 in Dorchester.

“I came away with an overriding sense of gratitude that we were given the chance to meet directly with veterans in need and provide immediate assistance,” said Julie McCormack, Director of the Disability Litigation & Benefits Advocacy Project at LSC. “Some veterans came to the tent in real crisis, and Stand Down created an opportunity for us to be there in the right place at the right time.”

LSC staffed the legal assistance tent for half the day, providing pro bono legal consultations to nearly 50 veterans. Ten attorneys from across LSC’s clinics and practice areas participated, advising veterans in the areas of VA and disability benefits, SNAP and other public benefits, tax controversies, housing law, family law, estate planning, and consumer law. LSC also recruited volunteer attorneys from the Fair Employment Project, the Northeast Justice Center, and Harvard’s Criminal Justice Institute to provide advice on employment law, family law, and criminal law matters.

Volunteering at Stand Down is just one example of outreach by LSC to meet the legal needs of our community. LSC also sponsors the People’s Law School, where attorneys and law students provide free legal education to community members. The next People’s Law School event will be held in November 2015 and will focus on the needs of veterans.

Christopher Melendez ’15 Wins CLEA’s Outstanding Clinical Student Award

Dean Martha Minow (center left) and students who are part of Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic spoke with judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

Christopher Melendez, J.D. ’15 (third from the right) with Dean Martha Minow (center left), judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and students who were part of Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic.

Congratulations to Christopher Melendez J.D. ’15, on winning the Outstanding Clinical Student Award from the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA). The award is presented annually to one student from each law school for his/her outstanding clinical coursework and contributions to the clinical community.

Chris was nominated by Clinical Professor of Law Daniel Nagin for his work with the Veterans Legal Clinic. Over the course of his three years at Harvard Law, Chris has logged hundreds of pro bono hours in service to the community and excelled as a clinical law student.

“I have had a fantastic experience working with the Veterans Legal Clinic,” said Chris. “Not only did I receive an immensely practical education, but I was also able to work with engaging clients and novel issues of law. Having left the Marine Corps to attend law school, the Veterans Legal Clinic also gave me the personal satisfaction of connecting with a broad community of Massachusetts veterans.”

Chris first joined the Clinic as a summer intern during his 1L year. He worked long hours crafting appellate briefs, representing clients, and interviewing new clients who contacted the Clinic. He then enrolled in the Veterans Legal Clinic as a 2L clinical student. During his first semester in the Clinic, along with student co-counsel, Chris briefed and argued a significant case before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The case involved a question of first impression regarding whether the Court’s own filing deadline for commencing an appeal from an adverse VA decision could be extended because of a veteran’s difficulties readjusting to civilian life following a combat deployment.

“Chris spent day after day preparing for the argument and worked seamlessly with his fellow students on the team to consider the case from every angle,” said Nagin. In a precedential decision, Ausmer v. Shinseki, 26 Vet.App. 392 (2013), the Court ruled in favor of the veteran and for the first time applied the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to the Court’s own filing deadline.  The decision not only allowed this individual veteran’s disability appeal to be heard on the merits, but protects the appellate rights of other veterans who have service-connected disabilities and experienced multiple deployments.

“Together with his fellow students on the team, it was Chris’ determination, creativity, smarts, and grit that helped bring justice to this veteran and many other veterans who will benefit from the Court’s decision,” said Dan Nagin.

“Arguing Ausmer v. Shinseki  was the highlight of my experience at HLS,” said Chris. “I met esteemed judges, set precedent and was able to see the case through to a successful remand to the VA. Because of this experience, I can head into professional life fully prepared to conduct veterans advocacy throughout the VA appeals process.”

“I am also leaving HLS with a deep sense of the problems—and achievements—of the VA as well as the place that intelligently directed advocacy can play in its reform.”

Chris’s contributions to the Clinic were not confined to a single case.  He returned to the Clinic as a continuing student and worked on countless veterans’ cases involving a range of legal issues. Among other things, he represented disabled veterans in estate planning matters, including drafting a sophisticated trust instrument to help protect the limited assets of one client facing serious health issues. Chris also helped mentor new clinic students. Even after completing his clinic semester, his dedication found new outlets. He helped the Clinic staff the legal assistance tent at Massachusetts Stand Down, a day-long summer event to link homeless and at-risk veterans to services. After graduation, Chris will join the Boston office of the international law firm Morgan Lewis.

Older posts