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Posted Dec. 16, 2010

Students Help Disabled Veteran in Appeal for Benefits

Chamness

Law School students who volunteer in a program to help disabled veterans are celebrating a client’s recent victory, the latest success for the three-year-old program.

Students in the Veterans Medical Disability Appeals Pro Bono Program work on the cases of veterans appealing denied disability benefit claims. They do legal research, write statements of fact and assist the attorneys representing the veterans.

“You feel like you’re given a huge amount of responsibility, but it gives you the opportunity to hone your research skills outside the classroom, which is really useful,” said Lindsey Chamness, a second-year law student who directs the program.

The students in the program recently heard that one of their clients, a Navy veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, will have his case remanded to Veterans Affairs by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The remand represents a victory for the program, which becomes involved with cases at the appellate level.

“It means the client is going to get another chance to present the record before the agency and present his case,” said Karla Soloria, a third-year law student who worked on the case. “Part of our argument was that he didn’t previously have the opportunity to pull together all the evidence that he needed to prove his case.”

There are about a dozen student senior associates, or students actively involved in the program, as well as numerous others who can help out when needed, Chamness said.  In the recently concluded case, a team of students waded through about 1,200 pages of documents related to their client’s medical history and case before the VA.

Soloria

Karla Soloria

“We were able to pull together a statement of the case,” Soloria said. “We also looked into case law regarding the VA’s duty to provide records, and we compiled all of that. The students did a great job drafting a statement of the case about the existing case law, and the attorneys used our work to write a brief.”

The program’s cases originate with the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a pro bono consortium that acts as a clearinghouse for such cases, and are handled by local lawyers assisted by students. Charlottesville lawyers Cooper Geraty ’76 and Bob Holub of Geraty & MacQueen PLC represent the veterans on appeal and work with students in the program. The pair said the students produce quality work that continues to get better.

“We’re able to assign to the students more writing tasks and more advanced research and case strategy assignments with the confidence that they’re going to produce results,” Holub said. “They’ve been very, very good about producing work and staying within deadlines and doing a really good job.”

Professor Chris Sprigman, who oversees the program, said the idea for it originated with a conversation he had with his brother, a Marine, about the disability benefits system for veterans.

“We’re involved in two wars, so we’re producing disabled veterans all the time, and they are going to enter a system that needs to be improved in terms of its ability to treat people’s disabilities and get them benefits,” Sprigman said. “It’s helpful to have lawyers, especially at the appellate process. It makes the cases go quicker and makes the whole process more efficient.”

Sprigman assists with the assignment of cases and provides oversight and feedback before the students pass their work on to the attorneys representing the veterans.

“The program is extremely beneficial for the students,” he said. “They learn how to look at an administrative record; they learn how to write an appeals brief, and be part of a legal team.”

Solaria said the program helps students put skills learned in the classroom to practical use.

“What’s great about the pro bono project is that there are real deadlines,” she said. “If the attorneys need something in the next 36 hours, then you have to get it done.”

None of the clients represented through the program had legal representation prior to filing their appeals, and the students make a meaningful contribution to the workload the attorneys are able to carry, Geraty said.

“I think it’s clear that the veteran benefits from having a lawyer,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t have been able to do as many cases as we have over the past years if we didn’t have the students involved.”

Chamness, a former member of the National Guard, decided to volunteer with the program partially as a result of her own struggle to get medical benefits from the VA.

“Speaking up for myself made a difference between me getting VA benefits and not. If I hadn’t fought for myself, I wouldn’t have gotten VA benefits for the rest of my life,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know they have that right until it’s too late.”