Veterans Legal Clinic

SAVE THE DATE: Lieutenant Colonel Shannon McLaughlin To Give DAV Lecture Thursday, Nov. 21

dav lecture poster nove 2019

November 21: The DAV Distinguished Lecture Series, with Lt. Colonel Shannon McLaughlin (Click image to enlarge)

Lieutenant Colonel Shannon McLaughlin of the Massachusetts Army National Guard will deliver this year’s Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Lecture on Thursday, November 21 at noon at Harvard Law School.

McLaughlin, who deployed to Afghanistan and has more than 20 years of military service including time in both the Navy and Army, is now the state judge advocate/legal adviser to The Adjutant General for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Military Division. She is a member of the Veterans Affairs (VA) Advisory Committee on Women Veterans. McLaughlin has also been a courageous leader on issues impacting women and LGBTQ servicemembers, including serving as lead plaintiff in the suit against VA and the Department of Defense to challenge the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act with respect to military and veterans benefits for same-sex spouses and their families. The event is free and open to the public, and will take place at Harvard Law School in the Wasserstein Caspersen Clinical (WCC) building, WCC 2036 (2nd Floor), Millstein East Function Room A.

The DAV Lecture is made possible by the generous support of the DAV Charitable Service Trust and is co-sponsored by the Veterans Legal Clinic at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, the Law School’s Armed Forces Association, and HLS Lambda. Previous speakers in the DAV Lecture series have included Hon. Robert Davis, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims; Dr. David Shulkin, Secretary of VA; Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy; Robert McDonald, Secretary of VA; and Hon. Robert Russell, founder of the nation’s first veterans treatment court.

New Veterans Initiative Launched To Connect Low-Income Veterans With Underutilized Benefits


For Immediate Release
November 5, 2019
Contact: Katie Ward 603-689-8170

New Veterans Initiative Launched To Connect Low-Income Veterans With Underutilized Benefits

New Online Tool Aims to Help Thousands of Low-Income Massachusetts Veterans Access Financial Assistance

BOSTON – A new statewide initiative is being launched to help close the significant gap of low-income veterans in Massachusetts who are not accessing financial assistance that they are eligible for under state law, the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) announced today.

Secretary Urena

Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Services Francisco Urena speaks about the Massachusetts Veterans Benefit Calculator at the State House on November 5, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Secretary Urena.)

The new online tool – the Massachusetts Veteran Benefit Calculator – created by the Veterans Legal Clinic aims to help veterans easily determine if they may be eligible for financial assistance through a state program known as Chapter 115 Benefits. Massachusetts is home to approximately 325,000 of the nation’s veterans, too many of whom experience financial instability and struggle with poverty.

The announcement was made today by the Veterans Legal Clinic in collaboration with Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Ureña, as well as Veterans Service Officers and other veterans organizations.

Low-income veterans can be eligible for state financial assistance under Chapter 115 if they fall under 200 percent of the federal poverty level and meet other eligibility requirements. However, there has been a persistent gap between the number of veterans eligible for these funds and the number of veterans who actually apply and access them. A 2017 report by the State Auditor’s Office found that between 2014-2016, only 14,390 individuals received Chapter 115 benefits. Thousands more veterans may be eligible. The Chapter 115 program also supports survivors and dependents of veterans, but many are unaware of the program.

“Veterans have earned these benefits through their service, yet we know that there is a major gap between those veterans who are eligible and those who access them. And a similar gap exists for widows and widowers of veterans.  We hope this online tool can make it a little easier to close these gaps,” said Betsy Gwin, Associate Director of the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School. “No veteran or survivor in Massachusetts should be struggling to avoid homelessness, to keep the lights on, or to feed their family, and this financial assistance can make all the difference. We are honored to share in this mission with the Department of Veterans Services and local VSOs across the Commonwealth.”

“The Department of Veterans’ Services works to ensure that Massachusetts veterans are supported after a career of service to our nation,” said Francisco Ureña, Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services. “This new online tool will help veterans and their families explore state benefits available to them with ease.”

“The process of applying and navigating benefits can be complex and daunting, on top of the other daily issues veterans are dealing with,” said Wesley Bigham, a Massachusetts Veteran who served in Afghanistan. “I wasn’t aware of Chapter 115 benefits when I came back from active duty and was unemployed, but it would have made a huge difference for my family. If I’d known about this financial assistance and had access to a tool like the Benefits Calculator, it would have been one of the first things I did when returning home.”

Outreach materials

Outreach and informational materials about the Massachusetts Veterans Benefit Calculator. (Photo courtesy of Secretary Urena.)

Under Chapter 115 of the Massachusetts General Laws, the Commonwealth, along with town and city governments, provides financial assistance for qualifying low-income veterans and their surviving family members who are struggling to make ends meet. The monthly financial assistance can be used to help veterans pay their medical bills, for emergency assistance, or to help prevent homelessness and utility shutoff. Monthly Chapter 115 benefits can range from a few dollars to over $1,000 per month, depending on the veteran’s income and expenses. The benefits are administered by the Department of Veterans Services (DVS) and local municipalities’ Veterans’ Service Offices (VSO).

Veterans and their dependents can visit the online calculator, answer simple questions, and receive an immediate estimate of their potential eligibility for Chapter 115 benefits. If they are eligible, users can download a form with their answers to the tool’s screening questions and connect with their local VSO. In partnership with the state, the VSO will assist the veteran or dependent with their official application for Chapter 115 benefits and manage the process of accessing benefits should the applicant meet eligibility requirements.

For more information, veterans should visit MassVetBen.org.

The Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School provides pro bono civil legal assistance to veterans and their family members.  Our goal is to protect the legal rights of the veterans community through determined, passionate, and effective advocacy.  In addition to representing individual clients, the Clinic also pursues broader initiatives to improve the systems that serve the veteran community.  And because it is part of the Legal Services Center, the Clinic is able to leverage a wide range of expertise and advocacy resources for our community’s most vulnerable members.

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A Simple Online Legal Tool Designed to Help Reduce Poverty for Military Veterans

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?

Mass Vet Benefits Calculator screenshot

MassVetBen.org

“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

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.”

A Legal Safety Net at the Library

People's Law School Boston Public Library

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.

Legal Services Center Table at Boston Public Library

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!

Community Health Fair Flyer

Flyer for the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair

*Name and some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

Take Care of Soldiers, and Things Fall Into Place

This post, by Joshua Mathew, J.D. ’19, was first posted on the Office of Clinical Programs blog.

Josh Mathew

Josh Mathew JD’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

By Bryan Sohn

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!

Bryan Sohn photo

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.

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!

Ensuring Veterans Aren’t Left Behind

Steven Kerns, 2L at Harvard Law School

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.

By: Steve Kerns, J.D. ’20

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

Via the American Bar Association for Law Students 

Veterans Legal Clinic to Create Discharge Upgrade Practice Manual with Connecticut Veterans Legal Center

The Veterans Legal Clinic is partnering with Connecticut Veterans Legal Center to significantly advance the practice of discharge upgrade law by developing a comprehensive Discharge Upgrade Practice Manual for veteran advocates and an online, searchable database of published discharge upgrade decisions. This national initiative is funded by the Bob Woodruff Foundation. To learn more about the Manual, click here to read Connecticut Veterans Legal Center’s press release.

Margaret Kuzma of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, and Dan Nagin of the Veterans Legal Clinic

Margaret Kuzma of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, and Dan Nagin of the Veterans Legal Clinic

 

 

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

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 of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims delivered the 2018 DAV Distinguished Speaker Series Lecture at Harvard Law School

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.”

[A]ny time it takes a veteran years to get a final decision on a claim, the system is broken.

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.”

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

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.

LSC Engages in Legal Outreach to Homeless Veterans at Stand Down 2018

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.

Veterans Legal Services, pro bono attorneys, and LSC students and staff at Stand Down 2018