Winning Appeals for Veterans Denied Benefits

Mar 6, 2015

There’s no shortage of stories about veterans who have had their disability benefit claims denied by the Veterans Administration, or their appeals paperwork lost.

The VA claims process can be complex, time consuming and downright frustrating.

Veterans Advocacy Clinic director and Stetson Associate Professor of Law Stacey-Rae Simcox (left) works on a case with clinic paralegal Shirley Wells. Both women are Army veterans.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media

But there’s help for veterans who have hit a roadblock in their quest for benefits they earned while serving in the military.

The new director at the Stetson University College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic has forged some creative partnerships resulting in an 81 percent success rate appealing denied VA benefits claims.

“With this legal-medical partnership and law students bringing evidence to the table for the VA and making it easy to understand, we’ve been able to get the VA to change their mind about 81 percent of the time, the very first time we present evidence to them which is impressive,” said Stacey-Rae Simcox, Veterans Advocacy Clinic director.

Stetson recruited Simcox from William & Mary where she helped establish a veterans’ legal clinic in 2008.

The Stetson Veterans Law Institute sits across the street from the Gulfport campus.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media

“My husband, Mark Matthews, actually helped me start that clinic at William & Mary. And the reason we started it was when we got off active-duty, we messed up my husband’s claims with the VA so badly that we missed all the deadlines and the claims died,” Simcox said. “We couldn’t get all the benefits he deserved. We thought “Jeez!” if two JAG officers can’t figure this out, how is the average service member who gets off active-duty going to figure this out. So we decided to become experts.”

And they also became innovators setting up a partnership at William & Mary between the veterans’ clinic and the psychology department. Psychology students did mental health assessments of veterans who had been denied a disability claim. The results were include in their appeal to the VA.

“Any veteran who has gone through the process of veterans benefits will tell you that medical evidence is really important to what they do and if you can’t prove to the VA through medical evidence that your disability somehow has to do with your service, then you’re not going to get that benefit,” Simcox said.

Because of limited staff, veterans looking for help are asked to use the clinic's website or call.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media

At Stetson she’s forged an even broader partnership teaming up with the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.

“To create a partnership with the medical school for this purpose is a huge boon to the veterans and the VA because not only are we able to help veterans with mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, but now we can collaborate with medicine on the issues that most veterans have: hearing loss, back problems, knee problems,” Simcox said.

By the time a veteran walks into the Stetson Veterans Law Institute – they’ve usually knocked on every door there is to knock on. As soon as they enter the converted one-story home across from the Gulfport campus, they will meet Shirley Wells, a paralegal, and Army veteran who handles intake.

“We have some cases where soldiers have been looked over for 20-30 years,” Wells said.

Eighty-percent of their cases  are appeals of denied disability claims, but occasionally they help on unique first-time claims.

Second year law student Daniel Flanagan couldn't join the Marines because of health issues. So, he serves by working with veterans who have been denied their disability claims by the VA.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media

Stetson law students are a key to the success of the Veterans Advocacy Clinic. They do much of research and reading of files as thick as 1,000 pages. Daniel Flanagan, a second year student, works 18 hours a week at the clinic.

“This is practical. You don’t get to chew through a case file in any of your other classes. When you get Torts you go through a whole bunch of Supreme Court cases, but you don’t actually sit down with a case file that is a 1,000 pages thick,” Flanagan said.

What are practical lessons for the law students can become life-changing cases for the veterans.

“The people we’re getting are kind of at the end of their rope. They don’t have anywhere else to go,” Flanagan said. “For me, it makes it stressful because ‘Oh my goodness!’ I’m your last hope. Hope I don’t mess this one up.”

That’s not going to happen because their work is supervised by Simcox and other law professors at Stetson.

Simcox is working toward the day when the VA and the Veterans Advocacy Clinic has a strong relationship so they can work together fixing veterans’ benefit claims and getting the assessments right the first time.