Wiggin and Dana LLP
When we are not busy meeting veterans at the VA CT’s Errera Community Care Center in West Haven, CVLC attorneys have relied on gorgeous office space provided at no cost by Wiggin and Dana, LLP in downtown New Haven. For the last five years, thanks to Wiggin and Dana, CVLC staff enjoys quiet, comfortable space to write briefs, make phone calls, and complete all the other essential tasks of serving our clients. CVLC thanks Wiggin for this essential partnership, which improves the lives of veterans every day. CVLC will be moving out soon, but we thank the firm for all its provided.
Mr. Joseph Arisco served his country for fourteen years, all over the world—ranging from places around the United States to Vietnam to Germany. After completing his service honorably, Mr. Arisco had trouble adjusting to civilian life and ran into legal trouble after a series of charges for driving under the influence. After a guilty plea, the court placed Mr. Arisco on probation and ordered him to perform 100 hours of community service and make a charitable contribution in the amount of $2,000.
Mr. Arisco found that escorting fellow veterans at the Newington VA Hospital to medical appointments was a fun and rewarding volunteer position, and he completed his volunteer hours easily. In fact, Mr. Arisco volunteered 685 additional hours—far above and beyond what the court required.
When it came to the court-ordered $2,000 contribution, however, Mr. Arisco was unsure how he would come up with the money given his limited fixed income. Mr. Arisco’s clinician referred him to CVLC for legal assistance, and CVLC connected him with volunteer attorney Martha Royston of Halloran & Sage LLP.
Attorney Royston sought to modify the terms of Mr. Arisco’s probation. After meeting with Mr. Arisco at the Newington VA and gathering relevant information, Attorney Royston argued in court that Mr. Arisco should be permitted to complete additional community service hours in lieu of making a $2,000 charitable contribution. After her presentation, the court found that Mr. Arisco had already gone above and beyond and did not have to pay the contribution.
“Mr. Arisco had been really stressed out about this impending financial burden and was worried that he was going to violate the terms of his probation and potentially end up back in jail,” explained Attorney Royston. “I think he was really satisfied with the result and I learned a lot too. It doesn’t have to take a ton of heavy lifting to get a great legal outcome.”
Attorney Royston was right—Mr. Arisco was very satisfied with the result. As he explains, “She was outstanding, she really was. Nobody else has helped me out as much as she did—she’s the best. I didn’t even have to go to court, because she took care of everything for me. It worked out excellent for me. I give her five stars!”
Amber Sarno and Andrea Gomes
After serving in the Air Force during the Gulf War, Mr. Santiago faced some challenges adjusting to civilian life. The biggest challenge was his housing. Mr. Santiago lived in an apartment that worked well at first—he could afford the subsidized rent with his VA benefits.
However, when a new landlord took over, things changed. The new landlord raised the rent, refused to return Mr. Santiago’s old security deposit, and requested a new security deposit that Mr. Santiago couldn’t afford. Mr. Santiago got himself on the waitlist for an affordable housing development, but was concerned about his chances; “If I was going to move after getting an eviction, it would be so hard for me to get an apartment,” Mr. Santiago explains. He needed assistance.
That’s when Amber Sarno and Andrea Gomes of Shipman & Goodwin LLP came in. The landlord refused to negotiate a lower rent. “Practically speaking, Mr. Santiago didn’t have the money to negotiate staying there, and he likely would have had to go to trial,” she said. “He was a good tenant. He tired to pay, and the landlord wouldn’t accept the lower rent and refused to fix things in horrible conditions.
Mr. Santiago and his family decided to move in with his other family members, but it was up to Attorney Sarno and Attorney Gomes to resolve the case. When they went to court, they negotiated time for Mr. Santiago to move out. The action was withdrawn with no judgment, and his affordable housing prospects were thus still intact.
Mr. Santiago describes how Attorney Sarno helped him through a stressful time—“I understood everything. She was so nice, and it was an easy process. I’m so much less stressed, and I’m glad that it’s over. I’m thankful for everything she did. God bless her for helping veterans like me.”
“I’m always happy to do this type of work,” reflects Attorney Sarno. “What I did for Mr. Santiago was not a huge time commitment, but it really affected his stress levels to put this action behind him. Shelter matters. You can’t have much else if you don’t have housing – you have to start with the basics.” Attorney Gomes found the work to be rewarding as well. “It was just a really fulfilling thing to see how we made a difference in a family’s life just in a day in court, essentially. I look forward to future cases.”
Shortly after returning from serving his country during the Iraq War, veteran and father of two daughters Mr. Francisco Masis found himself in the midst of some legal complications.
Facing criminal charges after a domestic violence incident, Mr. Masis was left with neither representation nor a way to find a job – many employers refused to interview him or even offer him day labor work because of the pending charge. At the time, he was unable to see his two daughters and was managing his PTSD symptoms. He faced the added stress of dealing with a highly-contested matter in which his efforts to negotiate were in vain.
CVLC connected Mr. Masis to Attorney Linda Bulkovitch, whose first step was to go to court and work with a Public Defender to demonstrate that the veteran was doing his best to find employment, support his two kids, and get treatment for his PTSD. The public defender got the charges against him dropped and Attorney Bulkovitch took the lead.
“We just waded through all the issues,” she said, referring to the complicated matters of divorce, visitation and asset distribution. “The domestic abuse incident was out of character for Mr. Masis. There were no other incidents, and he was seeking treatment for PTSD at the time,” Attorney Bulkovitch says. “He’s really an excellent father who wanted to be involved in his kids’ lives.”
Ultimately, given the inability to negotiate a settlement, Attorney Bulkovitch went to trial. The judge listened to both sides of the case and appreciated how much Mr. Masis was doing to better his situation. Through trial, Attorney Bulkovitch was ultimately able to resolve the veteran’s mortgage-related issues and, even more importantly, she was able to secure him unsupervised, overnight visitation with his children. She also protected his privacy when his wife’s attorney insisted on open access to Mr. Masis’s private medical records and came up with a compromise amenable to both sides.
“She’s really out to help veterans and people who need help,” says Mr. Masis. “She’s dedicated, hardworking, and won’t stop short for anything, even if it’s an uphill battle. It was a wonderful experience working with her—she’s a wonderful person.”
“These cases, are, in my experience, complex and complicated, and I enjoy challenges,” says Attorney Bulkovitch, about why she volunteered to take on this case. “I also enjoy the benefits of being able to wade through those complexities and make a difference in someone’s life, who finally has the right diagnosis and the right treatment. I was glad to help this father and veteran put everything back in order. He now has a new chapter in his life, gainfully employed at the Veterans’ Administration.”
“It is good that veterans around Connecticut have a place that we can go to when we really need help and can’t afford to hire representation,” says Mr. Masis. “The program really works.”
Linda Bulkovitch received the Connecticut Bar Association’s Honorable Anthony V. DeMayo Pro Bono Award for Devotion.
Attorney Donald Tutson has almost always had an active pro bono client from the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center since he started volunteering in 2012. In his most recent case, Attorney Tutson represented Vietnam-era Navy Veteran, Mr. Earl Coffey. Attorney Tutson says, “I was able to give Mr. Coffey peace of mind because he knew he wasn’t going to be kicked out of his apartment.”
Mr. Coffey, who lives in subsidized housing, complained to his landlord that his second floor apartment was infested with insects. The landlord failed to fix the problem so Mr. Coffey complained to the local health department. Soon after, Mr. Coffey received a retaliatory eviction notice claiming he had breached his lease by making unreasonable complaints.
Attorney Tutson stepped in to represent Mr. Coffey at CVLC’s request. After a year filled with court dates, discovery and back and forth negotiations, Attorney Tutson came up with an agreement that the landlord finally accepted. Mr. Coffey remains a tenant of the property, and at Attorney Tutson’s insistence, he was moved to a newly renovated unit located on the ground-floor in order to accommodate his physical disability. Attorney Tutson recently visited Mr. Coffey at his new apartment and reports that Mr. Coffey, who is legally blind, feels much safer in his ground-floor unit, which he can access without navigating a staircase.
“This guy was on the ball. Even though he was a pro bono attorney, he acted like I was paying him $250 an hour!” says Mr. Coffey.
Volunteer Attorneys like Donald Tutson help Connecticut Veterans Legal Center better achieve its mission to help veterans overcome legal barriers to housing and income. If you’d like to volunteer to make a difference in the life of a veteran please contact Lorena Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vietnam-era Veteran, Mr. Owen Billing, appreciates the legal assistance he received from volunteer Mark Myers, an attorney in private practice in Storrs, Connecticut. Because of Myers’ intervention on behalf of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, Mr. Billing can repay a debt to the government without losing benefits he requires to pay for the basic necessities of life.
“I was confused and frustrated with agency procedures,” Mr. Billing said. “Attorney Myers took the time to explain things to me, which no one else was doing.”
Attorney Myers adds, “Between opaque agency rules and miscalculations, it was easy to see why Mr. Billing was frustrated. He needed an advocate to help sort out the facts and I knew how to push back against a large, anonymous agency.”
Like many Vietnam-era veterans, Mr. Owen Billing struggled to adjust to civilian life after he was honorably discharged from the Army in 1976 and from the National Guard in 1979.
Eventually, he decided to go back to school to train to become a drug and alcohol counselor. He applied for, and received, a Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) award designed to assist veterans seeking training in high-need fields. Empowered by this financial support, Mr. Billing enrolled at Naugatuck Valley Community College to become an addiction counselor.
The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program paid Mr. Billing $1,500 per month for tuition and living expenses. In addition, Mr. Billing continued to receive SSA benefits. After a few months of fulltime enrollment, Mr. Billing received a notice from SSA claiming that he owed an overpayment debt of over $12,000. The agency claimed Mr. Billing was no longer eligible for SSA benefits now that he was receiving a VRAP stipend and, to make matter worse, that owed the money he had been paid by SSA since he enrolled in school.
Attorney Myers volunteered to take on the case, recognizing the injustice of the situation: “Mr. Billing was a veteran living in low income housing and receiving benefits. Yet, he was trying very hard to get off federal support by going back to school and qualifying for a meaningful job. Then all the sudden —without warning—he receives an overpayment notice. A debt notice from SSA can be devastating to a low-income veteran, both financially and emotionally.”
Attorney Myers met with an SSA representative to advocate for Mr. Billing, who had received no indication that his VRAP award counted as income under social security rules. Attorney Myers resolved this issue, reduced the size of the debt and negotiated a modest, gradual repayment plan. Moreover, using new evidence, Attorney Myers agreed that Mr. Billing was due $720 from Social Security in back benefits.
Attorney Myers has been an active volunteer since 2012, assisting veterans with VA and SSA benefit claims, discharge upgrades and eviction defense. He finds his work and interactions with veterans incredibly rewarding. Undoubtedly, his clients feel the same way.
Mr. Angelo Cenotti served honorably in the Army for over 20 years in both active and reserve duty. After the conclusion of his service in 2004, Mr. Cenotti began to suffer from various health conditions including a brain hemorrhage. He was also diagnosed with PTSD in 2009. To maintain his health, he was required to buy and use medical equipment at his home. The equipment required large amounts of electricity and his utility bills skyrocketed. Wisely, Mr. Cenotti asked the utility company to come to his house, inspect the equipment, and make sure everything was in order. He suspected he was being overcharged by at least $1,000 a month and he continued to petition the utility company to rectify the situation at his home. They failed to send an electrician to his house, and after three years it claimed that he had accumulated approximately $35,000 in unpaid bills. Mr. Cenotti was suspicious of the numbers and when he sought a debt restructuring payment plan the utility company offered him an unaccommodating option that he could not afford.
CVLC paired volunteer Attorneys Noah Charlap and Joanne Faulkner with Mr. Cenotti. Under the supervision of Attorney Faulkner, Attorney Charlap tried unsuccessfully to resolve the issue in state court. Based on discovery in that court, Mr. Cenotti’s Lawyers were able to sue the utility company in federal court. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the utility company dropped all claims, eliminated all of Mr. Cenotti’s debt, and paid attorney fees. Mrs. Cenotti also received a lump sum of $500.
Attorney Charlap is a recent law school graduate from Rutgers University. He came to CVLC looking to expand his experience and through his work found a gratifying way to honor U.S. service members using his skills as a lawyer. “Veterans meet so many challenges, it is great that a resource like CVLC exists, and that I can contribute,” says Mr. Charlap.
Mr. Cenotti praises Attorney Charlap: “Noah did a very good job. I thought I would probably have to pay something, but everything was wiped clean!” He emphasizes the importance of CVLC’s work, especially protecting veterans from being taken advantage of by large companies. “Veterans—they deserve better, they sacrificed for their country,” he says.
Mr. Edward LaPointe returned home to Connecticut in 1971 after being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. He came home expecting to re-establish his life as a civilian, but was suddenly unable to keep a job, something he had had no trouble doing prior to his service. His family members also noticed changes in his mood, attitude, behavior and appearance. His psychiatric condition continued to deteriorate ultimately resulting in hospitalization in 1976. In 1984, Mr. LaPointe applied for service connected disability benefits hoping to treat his clearly deteriorating psychiatric condition. Mr. LaPointe was denied service related benefits in 1986 and then again in1987, 1990 and 1996.
CVLC connected Mr. LaPointe with Murtha Cullina associate Colleen O’Neill and Partner Francis Brady. Working under the supervision of Attorney Brady, Attorney O’Neill reviewed Mr. LaPointe’s previous attempts to receive benefits, delved into her own research on schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, and decided to approach the benefits request from a new angle.
Through her own research, she learned about prodromal symptoms of schizophrenia—the initial phase of psychosis when symptoms are vague and easy to miss. Attorney O’Neill collaborated with Dr. Joseph Chien, a Forensic Psychiatry Fellow at Yale University School of Medicine at the time, who evaluated Mr. LaPointe and wrote a comprehensive report. Attorney O’Neill was able to use the report as new evidence that Mr. LaPointe was experiencing prodromal symptoms of schizophrenia while still in military, and within one year of his discharge from the service—much earlier than the VA originally believed Mr. LaPointe’s service-related mental health issues to have begun. Mr. LaPointe submitted a new application for service connected benefits with this new evidence and in August 2014—approximately 30 years after his first application—the Department of Veteran Affairs issued a decision granting Mr. LaPointe service connected disability benefits for his psychiatric disorder.
Mr. LaPointe calls the brief prepared by Attorneys O’Neill and Brady a “work of art.” After thirty years of discouraging news, Mr. LaPointe felt like he would never get benefits. He explains the experience, “I was trying to explain that the disease was there but it wasn’t that noticeable before…Colleen presented a case that the VA really had to look at seriously. They did the research, covered all the bases. Colleen’s brief was over an inch thick! They did a wonderful job.”
CVLC continues to be amazed by the relationships that grow out of pro bono work. Mr. LaPointe and his attorneys radiate mutual respect and admiration for each other. Attorney O’Neill praises Mr. LaPointe: “He was a pleasure to work with, not everyone is as in tune with what’s going on in their life. He is a wonderful person and so grateful and gracious for our assistance with this case.” Colleen has many personal connections to the military: her father had a long career in the army; her brother is currently in the army and was deployed to Afghanistan last summer; and her boyfriend was previously in the army and was deployed to Iraq. She became involved with pro bono work through CVLC because she has “a lot of respect for veterans” and wanted “to be involved in changing a veteran’s life.” This was her first experience doing pro bono work with CVLC, but hope to collaborate with her soon in the future.
CVLC first met Murtha Cullina Attorney Eric Miller in early 2011 when a Partner at Murtha, Francis Brady, asked him to handle a pro bono matter for a veteran facing eviction from his home. Miller found that initial experience very rewarding. Housing “is one of the most fundamental needs, and if that is being taken away, there is really a sense of urgency to step in,” Miller says, “I have always found working with veterans to be extremely worthwhile.”
Since 2011, Miller has represented three other veterans in eviction cases. He says nothing matches the appreciation he receives from his veteran clients. “I think [the veterans] were just very grateful to get help after years of not getting help. They were very easy to work with and very grateful to have representation,” he added.
Miller feels that legal representation “absolutely” helps the veteran achieve a more positive outcome in these situations. Recalling one case in particular, he says, “it was a retaliatory eviction. The landlord happened to be an attorney and I got the impression he was taking advantage of his tenants. As soon as I filed an appearance I got a call from the landlord asking to find a different way to work it out.” Miller goes on to say “usually one of a veteran’s most important goals is making sure they get an outcome where they don’t have something against them on their record, and I don’t know if they would be able to achieve that without an attorney’s help.”
When asked what drew him to work with veterans in recovery, Miller explains that both his grandparents served in World War II. He says working with CVLC is “a good way to give back to people who have given so much themselves.” Miller disagrees with the stigma against veterans struggling with homelessness and mental illness. He finds his clients to be “people who have had a tough break and need some help.”
Miller now mentors other attorneys at Murtha Cullina representing veterans in housing court. “Pro bono work is a great opportunity for a new attorney to learn procedures you might not be exposed to otherwise,” Miller says. “I encourage any attorney—litigator or not, experienced or not—to take one of these cases. I think it’s great to give back and help people who need it. People sometimes fall on hard times, even for a month, and that shouldn’t be a reason to lose their homes.”
CVLC thanks Eric Miller for his hard work and dedication to helping veterans. Because of his efforts, four veterans have avoided the trauma of homelessness and remained on the path to recovery. To learn more about CVLC’s work and how you can join Eric as a volunteer please send us a message.
Dan served his country honorably in the Army, working on fuel supplies for a year in Vietnam. Decades later, when he faced the threat of eviction, he contacted Connecticut Veterans Legal Center for help. CVLC connected him to volunteer attorney Joseph Cherico from McCarter & English, LLP.
Dan faced imminent eviction when Cherico began representing him. According to Dan, from their first meeting Cherico “took a lot of stress off of my shoulders by being there.” Any time Dan sought Cherico out, his attorney “was there within minutes.”
In addition to a Notice to Quit, Dan received a written notice from his landlord stating he was being evicted because the fire marshal deemed his basement apartment illegal. Cherico contacted the fire marshal’s office to determine the exact fire code violation and learned the office had no violation on record. The fire marshal responsible for the report told Cherico he had “been out there a number of times and [was] not aware there is a basement apartment but it would be illegal to exist in that particular building.”
Cherico arranged for the fire marshal to visit the apartment. After the visit, the fire marshal confirmed the apartment was illegal. Cherico explained, “the landlord was basically making up the code violations to try to get him out, but the real violations gave [Dan] certain rights.” Since the conditions did pose a serious risk to the tenant’s safety, the fire marshal issued a formal order requiring Dan to vacate the apartment. This chain of events triggered the landlord’s responsibility to pay for Dan’s temporary housing until he found a safe place to live. The landlord paid for Dan’s moving expenses and for his temporary housing until he arranged new accommodations.
Reflecting on the representation, Dan said, “if [Cherico] was my own brother, he couldn’t have done better for me…without him I would’ve been lost.”
Cherico has represented other CVLC clients; he finds it “extremely gratifying to successfully guide individual clients through legal issues in a way that helps to improve the quality of their day-to-day lives.”
Chris Graham, Andrew Nevas, & Douglas Steinmetz
For nearly a decade, Harry served his country in the Air Force working on systems to protect American aircraft from missile attacks throughout Europe and the Middle East–until an injury to his back and head forced him to retire. Years later, Harry found himself “completely lost” in the process of a divorce from a non-U.S. citizen, with his right to visit his son at stake. His VA social worker put him in touch with Connecticut Veterans Legal Center; CVLC matched Harry with pro bono volunteers Chris Graham, Andrew Nevas, and Douglas Steinmetz from Levett Rockwood P.C.
Harry’s primary concern was protecting his rights as a father and ensuring his ex-wife could not remove their son from the country. Nevas recalled “there was a lot at stake here – [because of] his relationship with his son…It was really important he had representation.”
The attorneys negotiated with Harry’s ex-wife and her attorney to reach an agreement. They crafted a deal which ensured Harry’s son remained in the United States and protected Harry’s right to see his child. “At the end of the day, it was a mutually acceptable resolution that’s really in the best interest of their son,” Graham said. Now Harry feels “secure” that his ex-wife respects his visitation rights.
Also struggling with an injury related disability, Harry’s health benefited from the peace of mind that having legal representation gave him. “The first meeting I had with them, this whole thing was lifted off of me.” He added, “[the attorneys] took the stress away from me and told me to concentrate on my health.” Graham, Nevas, and Steinmetz kept in frequent contact during the process while Harry learned to wear a brace and use a walker.
The attorneys enjoyed working with Harry. Graham had a “great” relationship with the client, who was “really appreciative of the work we had done.” Nevas recalled an email Harry sent “saying you guys make a huge difference in my life.” He commented, “[we] don’t often have a chance in this business to really feel good about ourselves and feel like we’re really doing a great thing and a public service.”
Steinmetz oversees Levett Rockwood’s veterans projects and said “one thing that stands out is that, no matter how difficult the situation that these people find themselves in, they uniformly are above the cut as far as conscientiousness. They have [a] deep sense of honor.”
Christopher F. Girard
Larry, a 60-year-old Vietnam-era Marine Corp veteran battling cancer, asked his landlord to fix the heat. When she didn’t, he stopped paying rent and she tried to evict him. A clinician at the VA in Newington referred Larry to the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. CVLC connected Larry with pro bono volunteer Christopher Girard.
When Chris took the case, there was less than a week until Larry’s court date. Chris visited Larry at home and found his heat had been out all winter long. Due to the cold, Larry only used a couple of the downstairs rooms in his single family home and heated the rooms with space heaters he purchased himself.
Chris made a statutory defense arguing that Larry did not need to pay rent because the landlord did not provide heat. “As of the date of trial there was a new furnace but still no heat. So that was the evidence we presented to the court at trial and the court entered judgment [in Larry’s favor],” Chris said.
This case presented Chris a unique opportunity to go to trial in Housing Court. Most housing cases are settled in mediation. “To stand up in court and argue that this was unacceptable conduct of the landlord to have left somebody like that for so long, [that] it was important to see our way, was the most exciting [part of the representation],” he explained.
The client and attorney developed a mutual admiration. Larry calls Chris “kind” and “professional.” “He’s an excellent lawyer. He kept saying thanks for my service and all that… [he did] what he had to do, no questions asked,” Larry said. Chris respects Larry’s service and admires his character. He is impressed by Larry’s dedication to remaining in his home in a respectable neighborhood for the benefit of his twenty-four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, ranging in age from newborn to twenty-one. He admires how Larry’s “willing to stay in a place where, by all rights, he should want to move out of” because “the most important thing to him” is ensuring “his grandchildren have a safe place to play.”
Gary Sklaver of Licari, Walsh & Sklaver, LLC
Nearly forty years ago, Grace dedicated two years of her life to her country. She served in the Marines and was part of the last platoon out of boot camp before the end of the Vietnam War. She received a National Defense Ribbon for her service. Now Grace faced an uncertain future as she fought to keep her home from foreclosure. Grace contacted Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, who connected her to volunteer attorney Gary Sklaver from Licari, Walsh & Sklaver, LLC in New Haven.
After leaving the service, Grace and her husband, a Navy veteran, purchased a home. Her husband died three years later. After her husband’s death, she injured her back and relied on a small pension and disability check. When the prime equity line on her second mortgage closed, her monthly mortgage payment more than tripled. Grace could not afford the increased rate and she faced foreclosure. She tried multiple times to solve the problem directly with the mortgage holder before contacting Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.
Sklaver used a federal government program to work with the second mortgage holder’s attorney to postpone proceeding with the foreclosure. The delay gave him time to modify the first mortgage. Sklaver explains, “we got her a nice modification on the first mortgage and because we got a modification on the first mortgage [through the federal government program]…[it] allowed [us] to save her home.”
Sklaver remembers Grace as a wonderful client. This case was memorable because “there were two different mortgages that she’d been unsuccessful modifying, [and] she clearly had the need because of various situations with her life. The fact that we were able to make her life a little easier and to save her home was particularly rewarding.” His experience working with Grace is representative of his pro bono work with veterans. Sklaver explains, “[veterans] are very appreciative of all of the help they can receive and so that’s always nice to have appreciative clients.”
Grace continues to appreciate Sklaver’s efforts on her behalf. “He’s just amazing, his whole office. You would not believe what he does, has done, is doing for veterans,” she said. “If not for the grace of God and Attorney Sklaver and his other attorneys, I’d be living on the streets.”
Sklaver volunteered to represent veterans in honor of his son, Captain Benjamin Sklaver. Captain Sklaver was killed by a suicide bomber while on foot patrol in October 2009 while deployed in a civil affairs unit with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. In 2007, after returning from military service in Uganda, Captain Sklaver founded the nonprofit ClearWater Initiative (www.clearwaterinitiative.org) to promote innovative solutions for clean water in conflict-affected areas of northern Uganda. In addition to his pro bono work, Gary Sklaver serves as an officer and active part of ClearWater Initiative.
Josephine Chang of GE Capital Americas
John is a good brother to Arthur. Arthur served two years in the Navy in the 1960s handling chemicals on a ship near Vietnam. Now he suffers from debilitating Parkinson’s disease. His health kept him unemployed for years and he had used all of his savings. He had moved to a less expensive country, and his brother John handles his finances, such as they are.
John reached out to the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center for help when Arthur received notice that the Department of Veterans Affairs claimed that Arthur received an overpayment of benefits totaling nearly $19,000. John attempted to handle the issue and approached other local veterans’ organizations without success. The CVLC talked with him about the problem and connected him with pro bono volunteer Josephine Chang, Associate General Counsel, GE Capital Americas.
Due to Arthur’s health, Chang handled the case through emails and phone calls with John. No court appearance was required. Chang prepared an appeal to the Department of Veterans Affairs arguing that a VA error caused any overpayment and, in the alternative, Arthur couldn’t pay it back because he didn’t have enough to cover his basic necessities. The VA agreed to waive the debt.
Chang felt grateful to be able to help a veteran in need. She appreciated the opportunity to better understand government benefits and consider whether the rules produce justice for the elderly. In addition, Chang immigrated to the United States as a preadolescent and helping a veteran gave her personal gratification. “I demonstrate that I am also an American and I can be patriotic as well in different ways. That’s been in the minds of a lot of what we call new immigrants. I think this particular pro bono case actually helped me achieve that satisfaction,” she explained.
“There’s no question in my mind that that [issue] would not have been resolved without the work Attorney Chang put into it,” John said. “It was incredible, the letter she drafted for me to send. It was obviously a very legal letter and she touched every possible [part of the] research and she did get all of the back-up information.” He then shared his one regret. “I just wish I had the opportunity to have met her because I think she’s just a wonderful person.”
Bill Egan of Robinson & Cole
Recently an Army veteran I’ll call Jim reached out to Connecticut Veterans Legal Center for help. Jim, who served as a medic in a field artillery unit in Europe in the late 1970’s, ran into financial trouble when he lost his job. Jim had been an automobile manager at a car dealership for over twenty years. CVLC contacted the law firm of Robinson & Cole, who connected Jim with pro bono volunteer Bill Egan.
Bill remembers that Jim was concerned that if he became homeless he would lose joint custody of his twelve-year-old son who he sees three times a week. “Nothing is more important than my two boys,” Jim said.
Bill worked with the landlord to get Jim two months to try to resolve his financial issues, but when Jim realized he could not establish enough income to pay the rent, Bill secured another two months for Jim to find a new home in VA transitional housing and avoid an emergency shelter.
Jim’s transitional housing gives him a safe, affordable place while he looks for work. Most importantly, Jim’s move allowed him to maintain joint custody of his twelve-year-old son. In his new place, Jim explains, his sons, “can come visit me, I can see them.” He adds, “it’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than it could have been.”
Bill volunteering to represent Jim enriched both of their lives. Jim remembers Bill as an “unbelievable” person who not only gave him “first class service” but “basically saved my life.” Bill had the opportunity to thank Jim firsthand and express his appreciation for Jim’s years of service.
Bill has represented four veterans through Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. Bill enjoys “being able to let veterans like Jim feel that he or she is not facing an unfamiliar, potentially scary system alone.” “These clients are exceedingly honorable individuals who want to do the right thing,” Bill says.
Volunteer attorneys make life-changing contributions for homeless and mentally-ill veterans like Jim every day through referrals from Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. Veterans seek assistance with a wide-spectrum of legal issues including divorces, child support and custody, consumer debts, social security and VA disability, bankruptcy, criminal charges, taxes, pardons, landlord-tenant and foreclosure to name a few. CVLC is also grateful for volunteer law students and paralegals who provide assistance with legal research, file review, investigation and administrative proceedings. Training is available for attorneys and paralegals interested in helping veterans correct their military records.
Jim (in photo to the left)