Veterans Consortium Honors VLI Pro Bono Work

A one-story, Mediterranean revival-inspired building, in front of which is a large sign that says "Veterans Law Institute, Stetson University College of Law."
The Veterans Law Institute is on the Stetson University College of Law campus in Gulfport, Florida.

In recognition of its extensive work on behalf of veterans, The Veterans Consortium (TVC) has named Stetson’s Veterans Law Institute among seven recipients of its 2023 TVC Pro Bono Mission Partner Awards.

The awards honor active members of TVC’s National Volunteer Corps for committing their time and expertise to help further TVC’s mission of providing quality legal services to veterans in need at no charge. Award recipients will be honored Wednesday, November 15at the TVC Pro Bono Mission Partner Awards Reception, in Washington, DC.

The VLI won the consortium’s inaugural Legal Scholars Award for its extensive work on behalf of veterans. Law Professor and Veterans Law Institute Director Stacey-Rae Simcox and Adjunct Professor and VLI Associate Director Morgan MacIsaac-Bykowski will travel to Washington to accept the award.

“It is an honor to be recognized by The Veterans Consortium for the work we do on behalf of veterans,” Simcox said. “And it only inspires us to build on our successful record of advocating for veterans while giving our students a chance to do meaningful work on behalf of those who have served our nation.”

Tireless work on behalf of veterans

A founding member of the National Law School Veterans Clinic Consortium (NLSVCC), the VLI has been involved with numerous efforts to secure benefits for veterans whose claims for benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had been denied or inadequately compensated. These cases can take years.

In one case, a Navy veteran was hit by a car during service and suffered numerous injuries. They worsened over time; eventually requiring him to use a wheelchair. VLI students and staff took his case to court four times. After eight years, their work led to the client’s payment going from 30 percent to 100 percent due to unemployability and allowed him to receive over $70,000 in back benefits owed to him.

In another, a Navy corpsman experienced neurological damage after being tasked with spraying a pesticide to kill the fruit flies that invaded the Naval facility where he worked. He was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Receiving no benefits, he sought help from the VLI.

Professor Stacey-Rae Simcox meets with students working with the Veterans Advocacy Clinic.
Professor Stacey-Rae Simcox meets with students working with the Veterans Advocacy Clinic.

Over four years, they were able to prove the connection between the pesticides he used and his MS – and the veteran received 100 percent of his claim along with Dependent and Indemnity compensation, which means his spouse would be paid monthly after he passed away. In addition, the VLI helped secure over $1 million in back pay for the client since his wife had been paying out of pocket for nursing home care, prescriptions, and medical appointments that should have been covered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Gaining experience, changing lives

In addition to helping veterans, the VLI gives students the opportunity to gain critical hands-on experience on U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) cases with potentially transformative outcomes.

For alumnus Christopher Gieger ’21, the first case he worked on was an introduction to appellate advocacy in administrative law, which became a critical first step toward his current career.

“I loved the challenges of the case and figuring out the best way to present our arguments in a brief,” he said. “The case also gave me the honor of representing a United States Veteran. We wanted to provide the best advocacy possible, and that pressure was a privilege.”

Alumnus Max Yarus ’19 said he wanted to gain experience serving vulnerable populations through public interest litigation – adding that working on veterans’ behalf was a chance to feel close to his grandfather, a World War II veteran.

“I remember writing my first memos and briefs and conducting negotiations with opposing counsel at the VLI; they were truly the foundations of my legal career and gave me the confidence to continue representing veterans in appeals to the CAVC after graduation,” he said. “I am currently clerking for Judge [Michael] Allen on the CAVC, and I’m eternally grateful for the VLI starting me down this career path.”

A former U.S. Army Airborne Infantryman who deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, Vasilios Zimarakos ‘20 said many of his friends, family members, peers, and leaders who have experienced disabilities caused by and obtained during their time in service.

He said his most memorable appellate case while working in the VLI involved the widow of a veteran who had died from a disability obtained during his service in the Vietnam War. Zimarakos and his colleagues were able to secure benefits for the widow as well as back pay.

“The feeling of being able to tell ‘my’ first client about the outcome is something I’ll never forget, and my experiences at the VLI shaped my professional career in ways I still attribute to my time spent working on cases for our nation’s veterans,” Zimarakos said.

Learn more about Stetson’s Veterans Law Institute.