Court Hails “Just Result” for Veterans as an “Example of the Class Action Concept Working at its Best”
Our Pro Bono Commitment
The US District Court for the District of Connecticut has granted final approval to a class action settlement in which the US Army agreed to reconsider the less-than-honorable discharges of thousands of veterans with service-related mental health conditions.
Jenner & Block, with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, represents Iraq war veteran Steve Kennedy and Afghanistan war veteran Alicia Carson, pro bono, in a nationwide class action against the Army. Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Carson alleged that after the Army discharged veterans with less-than-honorable status on account of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, and other mental health conditions developed during their service time,the Army Discharge Review Board failed to account for those symptoms when it denied them upgrades in their discharge status.
On Monday, the court granted final approval to a settlement reached by the parties in November. In its opinion, the court described the settlement as “an example of the class action concept working at its best” because it “achieves a just result for many veterans, and for the Army they served.”
Under terms of the settlement, the Army will automaticallyreconsider thousands of discharge status upgrade applications under a lenient standard of review. Additionally, the Army will adopt procedural reforms, such as a universal telephonic hearing program, that will make it easier for veterans to applyfor upgrades in their discharge status and participate in related hearings.
During the final fairness hearing on the settlement last month,Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. had high praise for our pro bono work, saying on the record: “It's a fine thing … to see one of the great firms like Jenner & Block devote considerable resources to the pro bono representation of groups like these army veterans…”
Partners Susan J. Kohlmann and Jeremy Creelan led this matter, along with Associate Jacob Tracer and former associates Ravi Ramanathan and William Goldstein.
Read more in this press release from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic, in this Bloomberg article, and in this Stars and Stripes article.
Judge Rejects Motions to Dismiss, Orders Discovery in Class Action for Veterans with PTSD
On November 7, a Jenner & Block team secured a significant pro bono victory on behalf of thousands of Navy and Marine Corps veterans when a federal judge rejected the Secretary of the Navy’s request to dismiss a nationwide class action against the Navy Discharge Review Board (NDRB) and the US Department of Defense for issuing less-than-honorable discharges to veterans suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.
In addition to denying the government’s motion, Senior Judge Charles S. Haight, Jr. of the District of Connecticut ordered the case to proceed discovery and directed the Navy to reconsider the requests to upgrade to Honorable the discharge characterizations of firm client Tyson Manker and of John Doe, a member of the organizational plaintiff National Veterans Council for Legal Redress (NVCLR).
“Today’s ruling, in time for Veterans Day, reaffirms the rule of law and brings us one step closer to getting justice for every veteran who was unfairly dismissed from the military with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma, and denied their honorable discharge,” said Manker in a press release announcing the judge’s order to proceed.
In March 2018, Manker, a veteran of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and NVCLR filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of former Marines and sailors suffering from PTSD, who were unfairly dismissed from the military and denied their honorable discharge. The lawsuit seeks to ensure the fair treatment of veterans who have or would be subjected to unfair procedures during the review process in front of the NDRB.
On November 16, 2018, a judge certified the class action against the NDRB and US Department of Defense. The government went on to advance multiple arguments that, as the Court summarized, “seem to relate exclusively to the individual circumstances of Tyson Manker and John Doe.” But Judge Haight rejected these contentions, emphasizing that in fact thousands of veterans would likely be affected by the litigation: “Manker and Doe play important roles in this opera, but there are other soloists, a chorus, and a full orchestra—a fair analogy, given that the Court has certified a class of Navy and Marine Corps veterans…”
“As many as one-third of the more than two million men and women who have served since September 11, 2001, suffer from PTSD or other mental health conditions in relation to their service. Many of these veterans obtain less-than-Honorable discharges, often for minor infractions related to their mental health,” said Garry Monk, executive director of NVCLR. “Veterans with ‘bad paper’ are often cut off from the very benefits that would allow them to successfully transition back to civilian life, and instead suffer a lifetime of stigma, barriers to employment, and ineligibility for crucial state and federal benefits.”
“When veterans seek to correct these unjust discharges, the Navy denies the vast majority of their applications, contrary to statute and to Department of Defense policies designed to provide relief to veterans with service-related PTSD and other conditions,” said Samantha Peltz, a law student intern in the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “Despite its claims of improved compliance with Defense policies, over the past two years, the Navy has granted less than 20% of discharge upgrades for applicants with mental health claims. The court’s decision today is another step towards justice for veterans who served their country and came home only to face daunting hurdles in seeking care for the wounds of war.”
Acting as co-counsel with Yale Law School’s Legal Services Organization Veterans Clinic, Jenner & Block represents veterans who say they were denied the Honorable upgrade because they had undiagnosed mental health issues, such as PTSD. Associates Jessica A. Martinez and Jeremy H. Ershow have led the firm team since the complaint was filed in early 2018. Associate Nicole Taykhman also made the oral argument in federal court on the motion. They are overseen by Partners Susan J. Kohlmann and Jeremy M. Creelan.
Veterans Obtain Class Certification over Discharge Policy
On November 16, the firm won a pro bono victory on behalf of thousands of veterans when a judge certified a nationwide class-action lawsuit against the Navy Discharge Review Board (NDRB) and the US Department of Defense. The lawsuit challenges the NDRB’s process for granting upgrades when a veteran has been given a “less-than-honorable,” or “bad paper,” discharge. Acting as co-counsel with Yale Law School’s Legal Services Organization Veterans Clinic, the firm represents veterans who say they were denied the upgrade because they had undiagnosed mental health issues, such as PTSD.
The newly certified class in Manker v. Spencer will consist of thousands of Marines or sailors who have or would be subjected to unfair procedures in front of the NDRB. The veterans seek a change in their review process.
Since 2001, more than 2 million Americans have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and nearly a third of them suffer from PTSD and related mental health conditions, according to a press release issued by Yale about the judge’s decision. In 2014, the Defense Department ordered the US armed services to consider PTSD as a mitigating factor in the misconduct that causes bad paper discharges. But in 2017, the Navy review board granted upgrades to only 16 percent of applications—far fewer than the approximately 51 percent of upgrades given by Army and Air Force review boards, according to the press release.
Veterans who suffer from mental health conditions were not only denied upgrades to their discharges, but that denial “affected their eligibility for benefits like the GI Bill program, and, ironically, PTSD treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” wrote Judge Haight of the Connecticut district court.
The team included Partners Jeremy M. Creelan and Susan J. Kohlmann and Associates Jeremy H. Ershow and Jessica A. Martinez. In 2015, the New York Law Journal named Mr. Creelan among the “Lawyers Who Lead by Example,” in part because of his work on this case.
Several media outlets, including Law360, covered the judge's decision.
Partner Angela Allen Profiled in Chicago Lawyer for Her Pro Bono Work with the Military
The feature about Jenner & Block Partner Angela M. Allen highlights her work with the Military Spouse J.D. Network (MSJDN), a group of law-practicing spouses of active-duty service members. Ms. Allen received the organization’s 2017 Exceptional Service Award for going above and beyond to serve others in the military and legal communities through her state licensing work, pro bono and mentoring efforts. Among her efforts: Ms. Allen testified before the Michigan Senate in support of a bill that would make licensing accommodations for military spouses stationed in Michigan. Two bills were signed into law. The feature also notes that she started the firm’s Veteran/Military Families Affinity Group and that she does pro bono work with the newly established Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network. The firm’s pro bono efforts include partnering with CARPLS, a Cook County-based free legal service provider that operates a veteran’s legal aid hotline. “We continue to partner with CARPLS, supporting them and volunteering to help get the word out about the legal aid network so that veterans and military families who have pro bono needs know to call CARPLS to get assistance,” Ms. Allen says.
Ms. Allen is a member of the firm’s Restructuring and Bankruptcy Practice. She serves as the director of the Illinois chapter of MSJDN and on the board of directors of the Turnaround Management Association.