When Henry Wilson’s VA pension was cut from $1,000 to $65 a month due to clerical errors, the lost income put him into a downward spiral that only reversed when a young lawyer and fellow Army veteran intervened and got his benefits restored.
Equal Justice Works Fellow Amanda Sejba, whose work at Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida is supported by The Florida Bar Foundation, The Florida Bar, and the international law firm of Greenberg Traurig, stayed on Wilson’s case until she was able to reach a supervisor who personally reviewed his file and recognized the errors.
Wilson, 60, had been forced to move out of his home when he couldn’t pay the rent. Homeless, unable to work because of a disability, and with little hope, he went on drinking binges that only made matters worse. His repeated attempts to get the VA to correct the problem had gone nowhere. But his fiancée, Lillian, stuck by him, and so did Sejba.
Wilson remembers clearly the day he found out that Sejba had managed not only to get his monthly benefit restored, but also to recover for him a lump sum to cover 10 months of missed payments.
“I was on Cloud Nine,” Wilson said. “I said, ‘Amanda did it!’ “
Without a car, Wilson had to rise at 5 a.m. and walk two miles to one South Florida VA facility in order to catch a bus to another where he attended classes to help him get over his PTSD and substance abuse. He had to walk 10 blocks to and from the store carrying bags of groceries, a trip Lillian, a retired nurse, could not make herself, having had two knee replacements.
With the back pay, they were able to buy a used car, and with his monthly benefit restored, they now hope to buy a modest home with a VA loan.
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“It changed my life,” Wilson said. “I can see a better way now. I can see a future. I am now at ease with myself, and with the people around me, and I’m grateful.”
Dr. Phillip Greenberg is chief medical officer of the William “Bill” Kling VA Clinic in Tamarac, where Sejba staffs the Veteran Advocates Legal Outreach & Representation (VALOR) medical-legal partnership through legal aid. Greenberg worked with then-Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida staff attorney Jayme Cassidy to establish the partnership, which makes legal assistance available to veterans at the clinic.
Under the terms of the partnership, Sejba and her supervisor, Laurie Yadoff, can help clients with VA benefits appeals like Wilson’s from their own office in Plantation, but they can do intake and provide other types of legal assistance from an office within the clinic. They often help with family, employment, and immigration law matters. Homeless veterans, some of whom are legal permanent residents but not citizens, sometimes have immigration problems when they lose their documents because they don’t have a safe place to keep them. This can have a domino effect when it comes to finding a job or securing housing.
“We just really worked hard as a group to get this started,” Greenberg said.
The very first week the program was running, Greenberg encountered an elderly veteran and his wife whose son and daughter-in-law were both addicted to oxycodone. The grandparents were taking care of their grandchildren but didn’t have legal custody. “They were in tears,” Greenberg said. He referred them to the medical-legal partnership, which in turn referred the couple to a pro bono attorney who helped them get custody.
“It just sold me even more so on a personal level,” Greenberg said. “They are just answering a lot of the veterans’ financial and legal needs and allowing us to do our job of providing health care. By freeing that part of the patient’s minds up, they enable me to start to have a conversation about hypertension or diabetes or heart disease and really focus on treating the patient.”
Sejba is grateful to The Florida Bar Foundation and its funding partners, The Florida Bar and Greenberg Traurig, for funding her two-year fellowship. Greenberg Traurig contributed half of the $112,000 cost.
“Without them we wouldn’t be here because it’s so hard to get funding,” Sejba said.
She is not sure what she will do when the fellowship is over in August, but she would like to stay on as a staff attorney. Coast to Coast Legal Aid has been looking for grant funding to enable Sejba to continue her work. According to a 2014 report by Washington, DC-based Equal Justice Works, which provides leadership to ensure a sustainable pipeline of talented and trained lawyers involved in public service, 72 percent of Florida’s Equal Justice Works fellows continued to work in public interest jobs after their fellowship was over, and 66 percent remained in Florida. But with legal aid funding in such short supply, it’s getting harder to retain legal aid talent.
Wherever Sejba ends up, she knows it will be in the nonprofit sector.
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“I definitely want to stick with veterans’ law,” said Sejba, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “I see such a great need.”