UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Under the leadership of Professor Michele Vollmer, the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic won appellate victories for two separate clients during the last academic year. The Veterans Clinic filed arguments in two appeals pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) in Washington, D.C. In both cases, the veteran clients won remand of their claims to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA), also in Washington, D.C. Both veterans will now have an opportunity to have their claims re-reviewed by a trier of fact—this time with the benefit of more evidence obtained by students during the spring semester. Clinic students also wrote legal arguments to be submitted to the BVA in support of each remand.
The legal process for veterans’ claims is lengthy and arduous. All veteran claims start at the Regional Office (RO), and are appealed first to the BVA, and then next to the CAVC. Success in veterans’ law appeals requires advocates to synthesize a complex array of statutes, regulations, internal procedures, and non-binding case law—which makes this area of the law an ideal training ground for future lawyers planning to practice in almost any area of the law.
While assisting veterans in need, the Veterans Clinic has also provided students with valuable experience. In both CAVC appeals, law students analyzed documents in large appellate records, one containing more than 700 pages, and the other more than 4,000 pages of medical and military records and VA forms. After reviewing the records, law students interviewed the clients, researched the legal issues, and wrote arguments (similar to mediation statements in civil practice) to advocate for a settled “joint motion for remand” without the need to file a formal appellate brief on behalf of the veteran clients.
Last fall, third-year student Scott Garner and second-year student Alyssa Gerace represented a Vietnam veteran seeking service-connection for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other medical conditions. Both students prepared for and attended a settlement phone conference and made arguments to opposing counsel for the VA and a staff attorney for the CAVC. A few weeks later, counsel for the VA agreed to a joint motion for remand, and the students, with the help of Vollmer, successfully negotiated the terms of the joint motion.
During the spring semester of 2016, with the help of Gerace, two other second-year law students, Shannon Sidley and Zachary Cruz, represented the same veteran on remand by researching and drafting new legal arguments for him and locating additional medical evidence to prove his claim, including a supplemental medical opinion from a mental health expert. According to Gerace, who stayed a second semester to help the clinic as a research assistant, “being able to speak with our client made the experience much more real and provided an experience you just don’t get in a classroom.” This student team also took the time to locate and contact lawyers successfully representing veterans with similar claims to ask for advice on locating medical experts for their client.
Second-year students Brett Atanasio and Andrea Sherman worked with third-year students Taylor Wolf and Matthew Huffines to win a remand in a case for a Gulf War veteran also suffering from PTSD and other medical conditions. The students’ written advocacy was so persuasive that counsel for the VA agreed to a remand without the need for oral advocacy by the students at a settlement conference. “Working on this case showed me how compelling regulatory research concerning the history of VA regulations can be,” said Atanasio. “Looking back at how the regulations at issue changed over time and the rationale for the changes that the VA articulated during the rule-making process allowed us to craft strong arguments on behalf of our client.”
The Veterans Clinic provided students with the opportunity to practice numerous skills that lawyers use in everyday practice and taught students how to advocate successfully for a client through attention to detail in research and document review, and precision and accuracy in written arguments. In addition to medical disability claims, the clinic students learned about a wide variety of veterans laws by also representing clients with pension and education benefit appeals.
The cases handled by the Veterans Clinic this past year helped the clinic to achieve several of its goals: (1) serving veterans in need of legal assistance; (2) training law students to be excellent advocates for their clients; and (3) raising awareness among the law school student body of the legal needs of veterans across the nation to inspire a generation that will feel equipped to provide pro bono legal services to veterans for years to come.