Guest Blogger: Jeff Yungman

The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty recently met in Charleston to discuss issues surrounding homelessness and veterans. The following is a brief description about the meeting written by one of the panelists, Jeff Yungman of Charleston.

Stepping Up Justice for Veterans as They Stand Down:  Innovative Approaches Courts and Lawyers are Advancing to Help Veterans

The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty presented a program at the Charleston School of LawPaul Freese moderated the program that included presentations by Paul, Jeff Yungman, Antonia Fasanelli, Sara Sommarstrom, and Steve Binder.  As the title indicates, the program focused on legal issues confronting veterans.

Jeff opened the program by explaining why veterans legal issues was the topic chosen to present and current initiatives in Charleston to develop a Veterans Treatment Court and a Veterans Child Support Clinic.  Antonia described pro bono opportunities for working with veterans and the ABA’s role in expanding legal services for veterans.  Sara provided information about the veterans’ child support clinic in Minnesota that uses law students and pro bono attorneys to provide legal services.  Steve then spoke about the homeless courts, their purpose, and how they operate.  Paul ended the program by describing veterans’ treatment courts, the reasons behind the establishment of such courts, and how they function.

The program was attended primarily by law students, but attorneys from SC Legal Services, the Solicitor’s office, and the Charleston bar also attended as well as at least one Charleston Municipal Court judge.  The reaction to the program at the time, and in subsequent comments since then, have been very positive.

Focus on Pro Bono: Douglas J. Rosinski

I haven’t met Douglas J. Rosinski in person, but I’m already impressed.

Really, just Google him. When I was looking for Pro Bono providers to interview, I contacted several people around the state; one of whom was Pamela D. Robinson, the USC School of Law Pro Bono Director. I figured if anyone knew who to contact, it was Pam. Sure enough, she referred me to Doug among others.

So, I popped him an email asking whether he’d be interested (or at least amenable) to an interview to post on the blog in honor of Celebrate Pro Bono Week. He promptly responded with his schedule and we had a tele-interview. Doug is very busy and while our interview was “interrupted” by his firm responsibilities, we somehow managed to complete the following:

Q:        Please tell me a little about how you became involved in Pro Bono service?

A:        When I attended law school (1994-1997), I was an older student and part of my reason for going to law school was to shift into a career where I could give back in some way, such as Pro Bono work. Before law school, I served as a Navy submarine nuclear engineer and commercial nuclear consultant, worked on robotics development for NASA, and as a consultant for the Department of Energy.  I thought that my life experience in problems solving would provide a basis for helping those seeking assistance with their problems; helping them make decisions. Most of law is making decisions and they’re easier to resolve with a little life experience.

Q:        What pro bono experience have you been providing?

A:        Well, after law school, I practiced as a solo for a short time in Georgia. Then I moved to D.C. where I worked in nuclear licensing. I still had a desire for community service, but somehow the usual pro bono clients didn’t seem to satisfy my interest. Then I came across a pro bono project providing service to veterans – the Veterans Pro Bono Consortium. They provide free attorneys to veterans and their qualifying family members who have an appeal pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (Court).

So I took a case; which ended up being a precedent-setting case. Before this case, if a veteran died before his appeal for VA benefits was resolved, the VA kept the money. It turns out the placement of a single comma in the VA regulation was different than in the controlling statute: it made all the difference in the case and for thousands of other survivors of veterans who died waiting on appeal.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t uncommon for veterans to die while waiting for the decision. And, $50,000 or $250,000 doesn’t mean as much to a dying 65-year-old veteran: it would have meant a whole lot when the veteran was 45 years old. There are a million VA claims backlogged some for years and even decades.  There are only a few hundred lawyers to help. This type of work has a direct impact on homelessness, poverty, and health care for veterans and their families. Most of these veterans are surviving on the low-end of the financial spectrum. It’s bizarre. It’s unfair. It generates a lot passion. I figure I can fight this fight with my legal tools and professional experience.

Oh, and these aren’t quick or easy cases. It’s a 3-tier system: Administrative decision first – typically pro se; Board of Veterans Appeals, which can be very lengthy and also pro se or a non-lawyer representative; and finally appealed to the Court of Veteran Appeals, which is a relatively new court.  The Court, however, has formal rules and deadlines unknown in the informal VA system. This third tier can be especially hard for veterans trying to work through the system on their own if only because Federal Circuit and Veterans Court precedent applies, not VA rules.  This 3rd tier is where the Pro Bono Consortium enters and matches eligible appellants with pro bono lawyers.

Besides knowing that you are helping very deserving clients another great reason to do this type of work is quick appellate level experience. You can take one of these cases, and in just a few months, you’re briefing and perhaps arguing it in front of a panel of federal judges, perhaps even in front of the United States Supreme Court! These cases have national reach and national implications.

AND YOU CANNOT BEAT THESE CLIENTS! They are deserving and appreciate the work you do for them, even when the outcome is not as hoped.

Nationally there are approximately 1,000 attorneys who do this type of work. And only about 100 or so of them who are regularly taking these cases. Right now there are roughly 25,000,000 veterans and over 1 million claims filed each year.

I look for cases when the veteran simply cannot afford an attorney yet has a meritorious claim and a legal issue that could effect many other cases. Believe me, there are a lot of veterans proceeding on their own. And it’s complicated. For me, I prefer the more complicated cases. They’re more challenging.

My first client? He was a World War II veteran. The VA error had occurred 47 years earlier. He had received 2 bullet wounds in WWII, but the VA was only compensating him for one. He fought for his rightful benefits. In 2002, he finally received a letter approving his benefits.  Shortly after he received the notice, he had a fatal heart attack.  His wife survived, but the VA refused to pay her the benefits because the veteran had died after the decision to pay, but before the check was actually issued.  We got that practice ruled illegal and the widow got her money.  After that case, it was estimated that approximately $3 million per year went to widows in the same situation.

Another client? He was a volunteer in 1943, one of Merrill’s Marauders aka The 5307 Composite Unit (Provisional). He suffered a back injury moving a cannon. It took until 2002 to get the decision to award him his benefits. He received a phone call about the decision to award him benefits, then a few hours later, he died. And we continued to fight it. His wife, the widow? Living in a dirt-floor shack in Tennessee. She got her money too.

These are not atypical examples. Military service can have such a huge adverse impact on these veterans’ lives.  Attorneys can have a similar, but positive, impact when the VA fails to treat these people’s claims correctly.

I really had no idea that this pro bono service would lead me to such amazing and professionally rewarding experiences.

-RFW

Reporting Your Pro Bono Hours

Seeking Comments from South Carolina Attorneys!

The South Carolina Bar Pro Bono Committee and the South Carolina Supreme Court Access to Justice (SCATJ) Commission are seeking input on proposed changes to Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct (SCACR 407).

This rule concerns the provision of pro bono service to individuals of limited means or public service/charitable organizations. The proposed changes include the creation of a reporting mechanism for pro bono hours and a requirement that those hours be reported to the Bar.

Pro bono participation remains voluntary.

Click here to view the proposed changes to the rule. Should Rule 6.1 be amended in the future, the Bar would provide additional information to facilitate the reporting.

Please send comments on the proposed changes to Cindy Coker, Public Services Director or Stuart Andrews, Vice- Chair of the SCATJ Commission.

Comments should be received no later than Friday, November 5.

Friday Wrap 5.29.09

All the week’s “atj” newsworthy items wrapped up

Friday Wrap Friday Wrap

Texas – Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation Recognize Major Contributors to Texas Legal Aid

Chicago, Illinois – ABA Invites Obama to it Annual Meeting

Washington, D.C. – 2nd ABA National Conference on Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities (Hurry for the EARLY BIRD special because after June 1st the registration increases)

United States Supreme Court – President Obama nominates Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court (For more news links, click here. For blog coverage, click here.)

Brooklyn, New York – A Call for Pro Bono at Boro Hall

Lexington, Kentucky – Interview with a True Change Agent

Nashville, Tennessee – New Legal Advice Clinic to Help with Debt Issues

Richmond, Virginia – LINC Recognizes Outstanding Volunteers

Public Justice Center – Donor Inspires Us with $10,000 Gift 

Ventura County, California – New County Program Helping Low-Income Families Adopt

 Winston-Salem, North Carolina – Practical Paralegalism: Paying it Forward

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – Credit Card Reforms Could Help Statements

Fairfield, Connecticut – Hard Times Force People Into Family Court “Solo”

Honolulu, Hawaii – Starn O’Toole Marcus & Fisher Supports Access to Justice Commission

Australia – Pro Bono Work Good for Law Students

New York, New York – Pro Bono Recruitment Drive

San Diego, California – Law Made Public: Legal Research Class for the Self-Represented Litigant

-RFW

Closed on Monday, Memorial Day 2009

The South Carolina Access to Justice (SCATJ) Commission office will be closed on Monday, May 25, 2009 in observance of Memorial Day.

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The SCATJ Commission thanks all of the U.S. Armed Services men and women who have bravely served us and provided a framework for civil access to justice!

-RFW

And for just a little fun, check out the Pink Boxer story!