Fighting the Good Fight … and winning

Stetson Law’s Veterans Advocacy Clinic celebrates recent successes for veterans

In September 2020 Stetson Law’s Veterans Advocacy Clinic celebrated yet another victory for a veteran in need – this time for a Vietnam combat veteran who was terminally ill with esophageal cancer.

The Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program, a national charity that provides free legal services in federal venues for veterans, referred his case to Stetson. Alumna Julie Munderback dedicated hours to get a remand from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to give Stetson students a chance to collect new evidence to support the veteran’s claims. 

Students Jakob Braun, JP Steinmetz, and Julia Knoll worked tirelessly, researching and developing medical theories as to how his service could have caused his cancer, including his exposure to chemicals and the possibility that other medical problems could have led to his cancer. They then prepared evidence and correspondence for a medical expert. The students’ work enabled the medical expert to formulate an expert opinion on the causes of the cancer that rebutted the Veteran Administration’s own medical expert opinions.

Stacey-Rae Simcox

The work of the students on this case was extremely detailed and laborious, said Professor Stacy-Rae Simcox, director of Veterans Law Institute and Director of Veterans Advocacy Clinic. From combing through medical journal articles with Law Librarian Sally Waters, to spending long sessions diagramming theories on whiteboards and then trying to frame their questions for the doctor in medical language that would be clear to him, the students remained diligent and dedicated to this case. Once students received the doctor’s answers and opinion, they then translated them into words the VA would understand. 

In September, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals decided that this veteran’s cancer was service connected. They agreed to pay him $142,000 in back benefits. They also determined his wife will be entitled to widow benefits after he passes away, which was his primary concern. 

“This is another example of why the work you all do is so important,” Simcox told those who worked on the case in her announcement of the VA’s decision.  “It makes me proud to be a Hatter and proud to work with each and every one of you!  Don’t forget this feeling you have right now – you can make a difference using your hard-earned skills.”

This is just one of many examples of the impact of Stetson Law’s Veterans Advocacy Clinic. Another was a decision handed down just prior to the end of 2020. A widow filed a widow’s pension claim in 2010, but over the years, the VA failed to appropriately adjudicate it several times.

Vasilios “Billy” Zimarakos (the best oralist at the 2019 National Veterans Law Moot Court Competition) won a remand the case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims before he graduated in May 2020.  Michael O’Quinn, a 3L, and Morgan MacIsaac, Veterans Law Institute staff attorney, took over and drafted a brief to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals explaining why the widow deserved an earlier effective date for her claim. The Board agreed and awarded the woman $55,000 in back benefits.