Earlier this month, Casey Connolly ’19 and Laurel Fresquez ’19, both students in Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic, presented oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims on behalf of a proposed class of veterans with multiple disabilities. The clinic and its partners commenced the litigation in 2017 to challenge a Department of Veterans Affairs’ policy used in adjudicating claims for service-connected injuries.
Specifically, the representatives are seeking to stop VA’s policy of imposing an unlawfully high evidentiary standard for veterans to prove that one disability has been worsened by a second disability connected to their military service.
The Court of Appeals, which sits in Washington, D.C., heard the argument in appeals involving two cases—Ward v. Wilkie, Case No. 16-2157, and Neal v. Wilkie, Case No. 17-1204. The cases were consolidated for joint disposition.
In both cases, the Veterans Legal Clinic contended, VA had used an unlawful evidentiary standard to deny these veterans’ claims for disability compensation. The VA’s regulations allow veterans to make claims for disabilities that result from an already service-connected condition. However, VA required these veterans and similarly situated veterans to show that one disability had “permanently worsened” the other disability—even though there is no such requirement in the governing statutes or regulations.
Connolly and Fresquez argued that the court should declare that VA’s evidentiary standard is unlawful, certify a class of veterans who have been harmed by VA’s policy, and issue an injunction requiring VA to amend its policies and take corrective action in the pending cases of all similarly situated veterans. An estimated six thousand plus veterans are in the proposed class.
Connolly, who argued first, and Fresquez, who presented rebuttal argument, fielded questions from the three-judge appellate panel on both the merits of the case and the motion for class certification. The entire argument lasted nearly 90 minutes. A decision in the case is expected this year.
“Working on the case was the most terrifying and rewarding thing I’ve done while at Harvard,” said Fresquez. “I am so grateful to the Veterans Legal Clinic for giving me this opportunity and for providing me the training I needed to feel confident in federal court. It was truly an honor to represent the proposed class of disabled veterans, and it’s an experience I will never forget.”
The Veterans Legal Clinic co-counseled the case with Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick(CCK), a law firm based in Providence, Rhode Island, and a national leader in the field of veterans law. The Clinic and CCK have partnered with Disabled American Veterans (DAV) to provide pro bono representation to disabled veterans before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The two veterans who are proposed class representatives in the case were referred by DAV.
“This case will provide valuable guidance for VA and for our nation’s veterans,” said CCK Partner Zachary Stolz. “It will help in understanding class action issues and will hopefully help veterans in proving some of their claims before VA. Connolly and Fresquez provided the veterans’ point of view with exceptional knowledge and exceeding clarity.”
Both Connolly and Fresquez have participated in the Veterans Legal Clinic over the course of multiple semesters, representing disabled veterans in appeals for VA and state benefits, and in discharge upgrade cases. Fresquez was also part of a team that recently argued and won a case in Massachusetts Superior Court on behalf of local veterans who were denied a state veterans bonus because of their less-than-honorable discharges. Upon graduation in May, Fresquez plans to join the law firm Simpson Thacher and Connolly will commission into the U.S. Navy JAG Corps.
“It was an honor to represent these veterans, who have earned the right to have their claims adjudicated under the correct standard—and who might not otherwise see that right fully vindicated without the class action mechanism,” Connolly said.
“We are proud of our Clinic students and their contributions to this important case,” said Betsy Gwin, associate director of the Veterans Legal Clinic. “We are hopeful that this class of veterans, all of whom suffer from multiple disabilities stemming from injuries incurred during military service, will finally be able to obtain justice at the Veterans Court.”
According to Clinical Professor Daniel Nagin, director of the Veterans Legal Clinic and the Legal Services Center: “Connolly and Fresquez worked long hours to prepare for the argument. Throughout, they demonstrated an unwavering commitment to their clients, a sophisticated understanding of the vital questions before the court, and incredible teamwork.”
In addition to Connolly and Fresquez, other Clinic students worked on the case at various stages of the litigation, including: Alyssa Bernstein ’19, Joshua Mathew ’19, Branton Nestor ’19, and Nathan Swire ’19.
Founded in 2012, the Veterans Legal Clinic provides pro bono legal assistance to disabled veterans and their family members across a number of areas of critical importance, including appeals regarding access to federal VA benefits and Massachusetts Veterans’ Services Benefits (Chapter 115 benefits), in discharge upgrade and correction of military records matters, in Social Security Disability appeals, and in estate planning matters. In addition to representing individual clients, the Clinic also pursues broader initiatives to improve the systems that serve the veterans community.
The Veterans Legal Clinic is one of five clinics operating out of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. Founded in 1979, the Legal Services Center will host a celebration of its 40th anniversary this year, on Friday, April 5. The 40th anniversary event will bring together faculty, graduates, current students, and current and former staff and feature a keynote address by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. For more information about the event, please visit the Legal Services Center 40th Anniversary Website.