A Track Record of Standing Up for Veterans
NVLSP grew out of a project in the early 1970s that sought to help servicemembers who were separated from military service with a less-than-fully-honorable-discharge. The project was known as the National Military Discharge Review Project, and was managed by attorney David Addlestone. The Project was funded with grants from, among others, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, to help these veterans to obtain an upgrade from the military discharge review boards that handled appeals from a derogatory discharge. The Project produced the Practice Manual on Military Discharge Upgrading, the first ever manual dedicated to educating advocates on how to assist veterans in removing the stigma of a less than Honorable Discharge in civilian society and the bar to veterans benefits associated with many less than Honorable Discharge.
In 1975, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the National Military Discharge Review Project merged with the Administrative Law Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center to continue assisting servicemembers who were separated from the military with a less-than-fully-honorable-discharge. From 1975 to 1978, Georgetown University law students represented veterans before the military Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military Records and assisted the staff attorneys with federal court litigation aimed at reforming the discharge system. Barton (Bart) Stichman, who joined the Project in 1975, was the lead counsel in the landmark case Urban Law Institute v. Secretary of Defense which resulted in the requirement that Discharge Review Boards and the Board for Correction of Military Records prepare written rationales for their decisions and make their decisions publicly available. The result of this litigation, even to this day, has produced a more transparent and fair system for reviewing the imposition of a less-than-fully-honorable-discharge. Stichman also litigated class actions including Giles v. Secretary of the Army and Wood v. Secretary of Defense, which resulted in several precedent setting decisions and upgrades in the derogatory discharges illegally issued to over 7,000 Vietnam veterans.
In 1978, Addlestone and Stichman affiliated the National Military Discharge Review Project with the clinical law program at American University's Washington College of Law. The new unincorporated entity was called the National Veterans Law Center (NVLC). The organization then focused on a broader range of veterans' issues, including benefits provided by the Veterans Administration, with a particular focus on benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder and diseases associated with exposure to the herbicide known as Agent Orange. In addition to representing veterans before Discharge Review Boards and the Board for Correction of Military Records, American University law students, under attorney supervision, also represented veterans before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
Addlestone and Stichman Found NVLSP
In 1981, Addlestone and Stichman founded and incorporated the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) as an independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to help ensure that the government delivers to our nation's veterans and active duty personnel the benefits to which they are entitled because of disabilities resulting from their military service to our country. From 1981 to 1995, Addlestone and Stichman served as NVLSP’s Co-Directors. In its first year,1981, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) contracted with NVLSP to produce the more than 700-page book, Military Discharge Upgrading and Introduction to Veterans Administration Law and began to fund NVLSP to serve as a national support center on veterans law issues to the nearly 1,000 legal services offices funded by LSC around the country. LSC national support center funding continued through 1995. Meanwhile, NVLSP continued representing veterans with less-than-fully-honorable-discharges in federal court, with Stichman as lead counsel.
In 1984, NVLSP discontinued its affiliation with the clinical law program at American University’s Washington College of Law to help a new veterans service organization – Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) – establish a VA-recognized program for representation of veterans and their families on claims for VA benefits. From 1984 to 1995, NVLSP attorneys trained, and supervised VVA’s national network of non-lawyer advocates in representing veterans before the VA regional offices while NVLSP attorneys handled VVA appeals to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA).
NVLSP Fights for a Veteran’s Right to Judicial Review of VA Decisions Denying Benefits
NVLSP and VVA also advocated in the 1980s for a change in two laws that stood as an obstacle to justice for veterans and their families. The first law prohibited judicial review of the claims of veterans who were denied benefits by the BVA. Ever since 1933, veterans had been barred by law from appealing a VA denial of benefits to a federal court. Unlike the decisions of most federal agencies, the decisions of the VA were completely immune from independent review.
The second obstacle to justice was a law enacted by Congress in 1862. This longstanding statute made it a federal crime —punishable by up to two years at hard labor – for a lawyer to charge a veteran a fee of more than $10 to represent the veteran on a claim for veterans benefits. For more than 100 years, this law stood as an economic barrier to lawyer representation of veterans.
The turning point finally came in 1988, when Congress enacted the Veterans' Judicial Review Act, creating a new court – now called the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) -- with authority to review a final VA decision denying a claim for benefits. It took another 19 years, until 2007, for Congress to repeal the $10 lawyer fee limitation on representing veterans before the VA.
Even after repeal of these barriers to justice, problems remained. At the outset, veterans who appealed to the new court had a very difficult time finding a lawyer to represent them. Because lawyers were generally unavailable to represent veterans and had no knowledge of veterans law, more than 80% of the veterans who appealed to the court did so without a representative. To address this legal need, Congress has provided funds since 1992 to the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program – consisting of NVLSP, Disabled Veterans of America, The American Legion, and Paralyzed Veterans of America – to operate a national volunteer lawyer program. Over the last two decades, NVLSP has served the Consortium by recruiting, training, and mentoring thousands of private attorneys in veterans law. These attorneys have used this training to represent one or more veterans in their appeals to this Court – at no cost to the veteran.
NVLSP Representation of Veterans in Court
Since the Veterans’ Judicial Review Act, NVLSP has directly represented thousands of veterans in individual appeals to the CAVC. NVLSP has also filed class action lawsuits challenging the legality of various VA rules and policies. NVLSP’s most important victory came in 1989, when it won a landmark class action lawsuit in federal court which invalidated VA regulations requiring the denial of claims for disability and death benefits filed by Vietnam Veterans and their families for diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange (Nehmer vs. U.S. Veterans Administration). In 1991, NVLSP’s attorneys negotiated a favorable consent decree with the VA in Nehmer. The Nehmer consent decree requires VA, whenever it recognizes that the emerging scientific evidence shows that a positive relationship exists between Agent Orange exposure and a new disease, to identify all claims that it had previously denied based on the newly recognized disease and then pay disability and death benefits to these claimants, retroactive to the initial date of claim. Since 1991, VA has recognized that scientific studies show that there is a positive association between Agent Orange exposure and diabetes, ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and more than a dozen different types of cancer. As a result of the Nehmer consent decree, over the last two decades, VA has paid an aggregate of more than $4.5 billion in retroactive disability and death benefits to hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans and their surviving family members.
NVLSP Educates Lawyer and Non-Lawyers in Veterans Benefits Law
Also in 1989, NVLSP began to receive funding from a federal judge. U.S. District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein oversaw the $225 million settlement of a separate class action brought by Vietnam veterans against the chemical company manufacturers of Agent Orange. Judge Weinstein set aside some of the settlement funds to establish the Agent Orange Class Action Assistance Program, which then gave grants to organizations to provide services to Vietnam veterans and their families. From 1989 to 1995, NVLSP was the largest grantee of the Agent Orange Class Assistance Program (AOCAP).
NVLSP leveraged the funds received from AOCAP to obtain for Vietnam veterans in the Nehmer class action many times more money in VA disability benefits based on Agent Orange exposure. In addition, NVLSP used AOCAP funds to publish for lawyers and non-lawyers the nation’s only comprehensive treatise on veterans benefits law – the Veterans Benefits Manual. After funding from AOCAP expired, NVLSP partnered with Lexis Law Publishing and has produced ever since 1999 an annually-updated edition of this 1900-page treatise in both paper and CD-ROM format. Literally thousands of veterans advocates nationwide use the Veterans Benefits Manual as their primary resource in representing veterans and their families before the VA. In 2012, Lexis and NVLSP also teamed up to produce the second edition of a four-hour DVD on veterans benefits advocacy, which attorneys can use to satisfy VA’s educational requirements for representing veterans before the VA.
Another method NVLSP has employed over the last two decades to increase the pool of effective advocates for veterans and their families is the conduct of training events. Each year, NVLSP conducts live training programs for the non-lawyer advocates who are accredited to represent VA claimants by The American Legion, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans of America and many state departments of veterans affairs, as well as for the volunteer lawyers who agree to represent a veteran for free as part of the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program. David Addlestone retired in 2005, and NVLSP Deputy Director, Ron Abrams, joined Bart Stichman as Joint Executive Directors of NVLSP.
NVLSP Launches Lawyers Serving Warriors®
Two years later, in 2007, NVLSP created a new volunteer lawyer program with the aid of a 42-month grant from the Iraq-Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund of the California Community Foundation. The new program, called Lawyers Serving Warriors ®, recruited dozens of private law firms and corporate legal departments around the country to represent veterans for free. Over the years, Lawyers Serving Warriors ® placed the cases of hundreds of servicemembers and veterans who became disabled after they were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan with an NVLSP- trained volunteer attorney from a participating firm or department.
In addition, NVLSP filed several class action lawsuits on behalf of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and were systemically denied the disability benefits to which they were legally entitled. NVLSP’s most significant success came in Sabo v. United States, a class action on behalf of 2,176 veterans who after deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan were found unfit for continued service due to post-traumatic stress disorder. NVLSP’s lawsuit claimed that upon discharge, the military services shortchanged these veterans by denying them the full amount of disability benefits required by law. A highly favorable settlement was approved by the court in December 2011, resulting in, among other things, lifetime military retirement benefits, including lifetime military health care, for nearly 1,100 veterans and their spouses.
Lawyers Serving Warriors ® has now evolved to provide legal help with disability issues to veterans from all eras.
Today, more than 40 years after its founding, NVLSP continues to work to ensure that the government delivers to our nation's18 million veterans and active duty personnel the benefits to which they are entitled because of disabilities resulting from their military service to our country.