UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic built upon its reputation and previous experience to engage in more outreach activities and to offer direct counsel to more clients than in previous academic years. The work of the 2018-19 academic year saw the clinic assist 20 veterans from 13 different counties in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nebraska, offering students valuable experience through outreach, advocacy, and client interaction. With eight J.D. (juris doctor) students, three research assistants and one LL.M. (master of laws) student under the direction of Clinical Professor of Law Michele Vollmer, the clinic maintained a rapid work pace throughout the year.
Clients Donate to Extend Good Fortune to More Veterans
In April, a veteran and his wife--former clients of the clinic who were awarded a 100-percent disability rating with back pay for 23 years stemming from the husband’s service as a chemical warfare testing “volunteer” at the Army’s Edgewood Arsenal facility-- donated a portion of those winnings back to the clinic.
“One of the best ten days of my life was when I was told Penn State Law would take my case,” the veteran explained. “Right then I knew I was in good hands with Penn State.”
Their generous gift to the clinic will be used to fund future expert opinions needed for clients, a section of the clinic’s work that continues to grow exponentially.
Similarly, a Vietnam veteran with acute myeloid leukemia who won service connection and a 100 percent disability award also donated a portion of his proceeds back to the clinic.
“Our clients just want to be heard, and when someone takes the time to listen, to do research and explain the law, they are really appreciative,” Vollmer said. “Donations like these enable us to do more, and help more people, which is what the clinic is all about.”
Wins and Cases in Progress
Using the clinic’s expertise from the Edgewood appeal, third-year (3L) law student Katherine McNally reviewed the case of another chemical warfare testing victim going over complex toxicology research. For McNally, “the best part of my clinic experience was working directly with clients and listening to the veterans talk about their military service and their life after service.” LL.M. student Bhargavi Kannan then obtained and reviewed the veteran’s medical records, conducted more research, and submitted their analysis to an expert witness.
McNally said she would recommend the clinic to other J.D. and LL.M. students “who are looking for an experience that will help them develop skills applicable to practice, while also giving them the opportunity to give back to veterans who have sacrificed so much for us.”
Similarly, 3Ls Tiffany Kernen and Anthony Gentile, and 2L Justice Kaufman, took the clinic’s previous three successes in winning service connection for veterans with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) to help veterans with other types of leukemia, including acute lymphocytic leukemia and chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. The students received assistance from 2018 Penn State Law graduate Todd Ciancarelli, who practices with The Mazza Law Group, P.C., and volunteers with the clinic. The clinic’s expertise is gaining national recognition as clients from other states are seeking assistance from the clinic with their leukemia appeals as well. While many of these appeals are pending, a veteran from Pittsburgh won service connection for chronic lymphocytic leukemia and was awarded a 100 percent disability rating in April with assistance from the clinic.
Several other appeals from this year are also still pending and many involve rare cancers. One such matter involves service connection for urothelial cancer, and another for cholangiocarcinoma caused by ingestion of liver flukes in Southeast Asia. Both matters were handled by 3L Ashley Dean. A third pending matter involves medical retirement and was analyzed by 2L Rebecca Spinner. In addition, 2L Kylie Hanlon researched a possible USERRA claim, and 3L James Hutchison prepared two appeals based on clear and unmistakable error, one involving an Edgewood victim and another involving post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other pending clinic matters involve veterans who served during the Gulf War, in the demilitarized zone in Korea during the Vietnam War, in Hawaii near the nuclear testing at Enewetak Atoll, and on a Navy ship near the Bay of Pigs invasion. Jordan Leonard, a 3L who served in the Marines, used his expertise to perform research for veterans injured from water contamination at Camp Lejeune.
Outreach and Advocacy Grow
Throughout the year, in addition to their direct work with clients, students also provided valuable outreach and advocacy events to veterans, servicemembers, and the community.
On March 30, the clinic co-sponsored a Veterans Outreach Fair with the Penn State College of Nursing. The event, held in the law school’s Lewis Katz Building in University Park, served as an opportunity to thank veterans and their families for their sacrifice and commitment to serving their country. Students, faculty, and community partners offered health screenings and legal consultation to veterans from across Pennsylvania. Nine J.D. students and two LL.M. students, along with Ciancarelli and volunteer staff attorney Leah Davis, met with ten veterans to assist with landlord-tenant, child custody, will- and estate-planning, expungement, social security, and Veterans Affairs disability appeal issues. This marked the first time in the clinic’s four years of existence that students were able to assist veterans with non-Veterans Affairs matters.
Also on March 30, the clinic sponsored a Wills for Heroes event in their space at Innovation Park, with Penn State Law donating space, computers, IT assistance, and other resources. More than 20 law students assisted volunteer attorneys from the Centre County Bar Association to prepare over 25 wills for veterans and first responders.
As part of the outreach of the clinic, Vollmer participated in the National Law School Veterans Clinic Consortium, of which she is a board member, mentorship chair, and membership chair. Through this organization, Vollmer mentored recently opened veterans clinics and several schools considering opening clinics, organized webinars for members, and advocated for the organization before the U.S. Senate and House Veterans and Military Affairs Subcommittee staff members. She also participated in the James E. Van Zandt Medical Center Veterans Legal Clinic on April 24, where she and Davis helped ten veterans with housing, Veterans Affairs disability, discharge upgrades, and real property issues. Additionally, Davis and Vollmer updated a chapter in an elder law treatise published by the Pennsylvania Bar Institute with new information on Veterans Affairs disability and pension law.
The Veterans and Servicemembers’ Legal Clinic trains Penn State Law students to provide legal representation to veterans and current service members in specialized and complex areas of statutory and regulatory law, and to advocate on behalf of veterans and those serving in the military on policy matters at both the state and federal levels. For more information on the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic, visit its website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.