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Big Law Firms Unite in Pro Bono Effort for Wounded Soldiers

National Journal | Tresa Baldas | July 12, 2007

Wounded soldiers who allege that the government is downplaying their injuries and cheating them out of benefits have some new legal ammunition: three major law firms offering free legal services.

Concerned that injured soldiers are getting a raw deal upon returning home, three firms Foley & Lardner; Atlanta's King & Spalding; and New York's LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae have offered to do pro bono work on behalf of veterans who are appealing low disability ratings made by the government.

Those ratings dictate how much money injured veterans are entitled to, along with any medical and retirement benefits.

According to attorneys, numerous veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed that the military is underrating their injuries, thus shortchanging them of benefits they've earned.

Take Action: Disability Evaluation System Reform

Ehren Halse, one of 15 King & Spalding attorneys who has volunteered to help the veterans, said, "it's outrageous to think that these people would suffer in the line of duty and then not be given their disability.

"When I first heard these stories, I thought, 'You know what, there's got to be a role for lawyers here,' just to advocate and help these veterans through the process. "

Halse, who has spoken with about 10 injured soldiers in the last week, noted that the beauracracy and administrative procedures that involve disability rankings are confusing enough for attorneys, let alone injured soldiers who may not even be aware of their rights.

"A lot of the lawyers are coming into this with very little background," Halse said, adding that the firm has a training seminar dealing with disability rankings scheduled for June 20.

Elizabeth Sandza, a partner in the Washington office of LeBoeuf Lamb who heads the pro bono program, said that her firm got involved after an associate learned of alleged problems with disability rankings at Walter Reed.

"If veterans are not getting what they deserve, that's wrong," Sandza said. "We would like to right that wrong."

Steven C Lambert, who chairs the pro bono practice in the Washington office of Foley & Lardner, said his firm runs training seminars to assist the injured veterans scheduled for June 19 and June 25. So far, about 20 attorneys have signed up to help.

Understanding Military Legal Matters

Lambert expects about 50 people from his office will take part in the pro bono project.

Walter Reed, U.S. Army and U.S. Department of Defense officials were unavailable for comment.

Discrepancies in the disability rating system came to light about a year ago, when the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a nonprofit organization that guides injured veterans through the medical evaluation process, started spotting low ratings.

The DAV investigation coincided with recent media reports that exposed poor conditions at Walter Reed, sparking a congressional investigation.

High demand

"The demand for our services has been very high," said Ronald Smith, deputy general counsel for DAV who has handled several disability claims on behalf soldiers.

Smith said that to date, he knows of at least 30 cases at Walter Reed in which injured soldiers received substantially low ratings and are appealing their medical evaluations.

Among those is Fred Ball, an explosion victim with two children who had a substantial part of his skull blown off in Iraq and a metal fragment embedded in his brain.

According to Smith, the military should have given Ball a 100% disability rating, entitling him up to $2,471 a month. Instead, he got a 10% rating, entitling him to $337 a month. He's been declared unfit for duty, but not hurt enough to receive full benefits.

"That I find extremely troubling," Smith said.

Participating attorneys will focus much of their energies on helping injured soldiers appeal their low disability rankings. They'll appear with the veterans at formal hearings before what is known as the Physical Evaluation Board the panel that actually gives out the ratings based on a medical evaluation by military doctors. If veterans disagree with the rating, they then request a formal hearing before the board.

Some lawyers also plan to appeal the soldiers' cases directly to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, which has jurisdiction over disability ratings appeals.

Among the key arguments that lawyers plan to make before the court is that the military is unlawfully operating outside the congressionally mandated Veterans Affairs disability-rating system, which dictates exactly how much soldiers will be compensated for their injuries or diseases. Under the existing guidelines, a 20% or lower rating entitles a veteran to one severance check and no other benefits. Ratings above 30% entitles a veteran and his family with lifetime benefits.

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