Lawyers look for errors in VA claims
Mistakes occur at every level, they say
Tracy Capistrant and Becca Wong know they can win government checks for the disabled veterans who visit their law office after years of fighting the Veterans Administration.
The trick, the two Minneapolis lawyers say, is to find the government’s error — something they say exists in nearly every case they come across.
Capistrant and Wong are two of just a hundred or so lawyers across the country who practice in this legal niche. The cases can drag on for years. The pay is paltry. The process of deciphering 10-inch-thick stacks of veterans’ service and medical records is tedious.
Yet, they believe, with persistence they will prevail for veterans who they say fought for their country and shouldn’t have to fight for their benefits.
“If you have acute attention to detail, you will find within those files where the VA has made a misstep,” Wong said.
Errors are made on every level and by everyone: the veterans filing the claims, the service officers who represent them and the regional office that has denied their claims, Capistrant and Wong said. Often, the VA simply fails to notify the veteran of an appeal in a timely manner or sends correspondence to the wrong address, they said.
Another common mistake occurs when a VA doctor examines the veteran making the benefits claim. If the doctor fails to reference the veteran’s case file, the lawyers will argue that it was an inadequate exam, and the VA may reverse its decision, Capistrant said.
Capistrant and Wong said they also work around the VA. They hire their own doctors to perform medical exams on the vets, and if the doctors can attest that the veterans were injured while in service and that they still suffer from the injuries, the VA may approve the claims, Capistrant said.
Nearly nine out of 10 veterans who apply for disability benefits in Minnesota receive them, according to an annual VA survey of veterans.
The veteran first applies to the regional office in St. Paul. If that office denies the claim, the veteran can ask that the Board of Veterans Appeals review it, and the claim may ping-pong between those two levels for three to five years, on average, before it reaches the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, Capistrant said. Only then does federal law allow a veteran to seek legal representation.
Capistrant, 41, began taking veterans’ cases in 1997 when a partner in her Uptown law firm told her a judge was seeking lawyers to work for veterans. Wong, 52, joined her fellow William Mitchell Law School classmate in 2002. Together, they have represented about 30 veterans, they said. Half of their cases are ongoing claims.
Wong and Capistrant said they’re not in it for the money, but because they think it’s the right thing to do.
“They pay a huge price for their country, and they come back and get the door shut in their face,” Capistrant said.
Beth Silver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-338-6516.