Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Military Law
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Cameron filed a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) on behalf of an Army veteran in August 2005. The VA denied Cameron attorney’s fees under 38 C.F.R. 14.636(c), which permits an attorney to charge fees for services provided before a final Board decision only where a NOD was filed on or after June 20, 2007. Before the law was amended, attorneys representing veterans in veterans’ benefits cases before the VA were prohibited from charging fees for services provided before a final Board decision.The Veterans Court and the Federal Circuit affirmed the denial, holding that section 14.636(c) is consistent with its authorizing statute, 38 U.S.C. 5904. Congress considered eliminating all fee restrictions under section 5904(c)(1) by repealing subsection (c)(1) entirely but made a legislative choice between the competing purposes of liberalizing the availability of attorney’s fees and avoiding disruption to the veterans’ benefits system, and “adopted a delayed and staggered effective date . . . [to] allow a deliberate and gradual implementation of these policies in order to minimize any disruption to the VA system.” In denying Cameron attorney’s fees, the VA has done no more than give effect to that legislative choice. View "Cameron v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. 2412, requires that if statutory requirements are met, the federal government must reimburse attorneys’ fees of a party who prevails in a lawsuit against the government. Smith, dissatisfied with the VA’s decision regarding his claims for veterans’ benefits, took an appeal to the Veterans Court. He was successful on the merits in part of his case and requested an EAJA award for his appellate counsel. The Veterans Court agreed to an award which included fees for 18 hours the attorney spent on an initial review of the 9,389-page agency record. The court imposed a reduction in that part of the award because Smith prevailed on some but not all of the issues that were litigated. The Veterans Court reasoned that this reduction was required as a matter of law by the EAJA.The Federal Circuit reversed in part. The Veterans Court undervalued the importance of the initial review of the case, a review that is necessary before appellate counsel could determine what bases existed for an appeal. That decision was contrary to the purpose and law of the EAJA. The court noted that if Smith had brought only the successful claim, the hours would have been fully compensated. View "Smith v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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A military commission was convened to try al-Tamir, apprehended in Turkey in 2006 and held at Guantanamo Bay for seven years without charges, for war crimes. Captain Waits presided over al-Tamir’s commission for two and a half years. A DOJ prosecutor was the first attorney to speak on the record. Weeks later, Waits applied to be a DOJ immigration judge. In his applications, he identified the al-Tamir commission. He received no interviews. In 2017, Waits was hired by the Department of Defense's Navy Office of the Judge Advocate General Criminal Law Division, after again mentioning his role in the commission.In 2019, the D.C. Circuit held that a military judge’s application for an immigration judge position created an appearance of bias requiring recusal, Waits disclosed his employment applications to al-Tamir and the commission. Rubin and Libretto later served on al-Tamir’s commission, Blackwood was a civilian advisor for all three judges and applied for outside employment while assisting Rubin. Libretto denied al-Tamir's motions to dismiss based on Waits’s and Blackwood’s job applications and to disqualify Libretto based on Blackwood’s continued assistance. Libretto declared that he would reconsider any of Waits’s decisions that al-Tamir identifies. The Court of Military Commission Review upheld that decision. The D.C. Circuit denied mandamus relief. The government’s offer affords al-Tamir an “adequate means” to attain the relief he seeks; Blackwood’s job search did not “clear[ly] and indisputabl[y]” disqualify the judges he served. View "In re: al-Tamir" on Justia Law

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Graham served in the Marine Corps from 1967-1970 and has been receiving disability compensation benefits since 2001. The VA regional office (RO) informed Graham in 2009 that authorities had identified him as a fugitive felon and the subject of an outstanding warrant issued in 1992. That warrant was withdrawn in February 2009. In May 2009, the RO issued a rating decision that retroactively discontinued Graham’s compensation from December 2001 through February 2009, due to his then-fugitive felon status, and informed Graham that he had been improperly paid $199,158.70 and that his monthly compensation would be partially withheld to pay back the debt.Graham appointed Gumpenberger as his representative on appeal and signed a direct-pay agreement stating that Gumpenberger’s fee would be “20 percent of all past-due benefits awarded … as a result of winning … as provided in 38 C.F.R. 14.636.” In 2013, the Board reversed the RO’s debt ruling, finding that Graham was not a fugitive felon for VA purposes because he had never been aware of the outstanding warrant. The VA had recouped $65,464 from Graham’s monthly benefits. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed the RO’s determination that Gumpenberger was entitled to a fee of $13,092.80. Although the total debt invalidated was $199,158.70, the past-due benefit, per 38 U.S.C. 5904(d)(1), being awarded was $65,464. View "Gumpenberger v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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The Navy began a program to design and build littoral combat ships (LCS) and issued a request for proposals. During the initial phase of the LCS procurement, FastShip met with and discussed a potential hull design with government contractors subject to non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements. FastShip was not awarded a contract. FastShip filed an unsuccessful administrative claim, alleging patent infringement. The Claims Court found that the FastShip patents were valid and directly infringed by the government. The Federal Circuit affirmed.The Claims Court awarded FastShip attorney’s fees and expenses ($6,178,288.29); 28 U.S.C. 1498(a), which provides for a fee award to smaller entities that have prevailed on infringement claims, unless the government can show that its position was “substantially justified.” The court concluded that the government’s pre-litigation conduct and litigation positions were not “as a whole” substantially justified. It unreasonable for a government contractor to gather information from FastShip but not to include it as part of the team that was awarded the contract and the Navy took an exceedingly long time to act on FastShip’s administrative claim and did not provide sufficient analysis in denying the claim. The court found the government’s litigation positions unreasonable, including its arguments with respect to one document and its reliance on the testimony of its expert to prove obviousness despite his “extraordinary skill.” The Federal Circuit vacated. Reliance on this pre-litigation conduct in the fee analysis was an error. View "FastShip, LLC v. United States" on Justia Law

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Attorney Ravin represented veteran Cook on a claim for past-due disability benefits. Their agreement provided for a contingent fee and contemplated that VA would withhold the fee from any past-due benefits awarded and pay that amount directly to Ravin under 38 U.S.C. 5904(d)(3). Within days of executing that agreement, Ravin sent a copy to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, where it was date-stamped on December 11, 2009. No copy of the agreement was submitted to the Regional Office (RO) “within 30 days of the date of execution,” as required by 38 C.F.R. 14.636(h)(4). The RO awarded Cook past-due benefits in April 2010. On April 13, 2010, the RO’s Attorney Fee Coordinator searched for any attorney fee agreement and determined that “no attorney fee decision is required” and “[a]ll retroactive benefits may be paid directly to the veteran.” The RO paid the past-due benefits to Cook. On April 27, 2010, Ravin mailed a copy of Cook’s direct-pay fee agreement to the RO. The RO informed Ravin that it had not withheld his attorney’s fees because the agreement was “not timely filed.”The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s denial of Ravin’s claim. Section 5904(d)(3) does not mandate withholding and direct payment; 38 C.F.R. 14.636(h)(4)'s submission requirement is valid. Ravin’s fees have not been forfeited; he may use all available remedies to obtain them from Cook, per their agreement. View "Ravin v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Shealey served on active duty in Vietnam. He sought service connection for a cervical spine disability and major depressive disorder. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals held that Shealey was dishonorably discharged. Before Shealy filed his third motion for reconsideration, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records upgraded his discharge to “under honorable conditions.” The Board denied reconsideration. Shealey sought assistance from Veterans Legal Advocacy Group (VetLAG), a nonprofit law firm; VetLAG would not charge a fee and if the Veterans Court granted attorney’s fees, VetLAG could keep the full amount. Shealey agreed that VetLAG could apply for attorney’s fees and litigation expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. 2412(d) (EAJA), and he would provide assistance. VetLAG represented Shealey before the Veterans Court for three months until a pre-briefing conference, where the government stated its intent to move for dismissal. The attorneys advised Shealey to file a new claim to reopen his case. Shealey disagreed, discharged them, and obtained new counsel. The court vacated the Board’s decision. The government did not dispute that Shealey was the “prevailing party” and did not oppose VetLAG's EAJA motion seeking $4,061.60. Shealey opposed the application. The court determined that VetLAG lacked standing. The Federal Circuit affirmed. Under EAJA’s plain text, the attorneys lack any substantive rights sufficient to confer standing. Affording standing to the attorneys over Shealey’s objections would contravene the policies on which the third-party standing doctrine is based. The fee agreement did not constitute an assignment. View "Shealey v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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These petitions concern the conduct of a military judge, Colonel Vance Spath, who presided over a current Guantanamo Bay detainee, Abd Al-Rahim Hussein Muhammed Al-Nashiri, who faces capital charges before a military commission. After receiving a job offer but before retiring from the military, Spath found himself locked in a dispute with Al-Nashiri's defense lawyers, three of whom sought to leave the case.The DC Circuit granted Al-Nashiri's petition for a writ of mandamus and held that Spath's job application to the Justice Department created a disqualifying appearance of partiality. In this case, the average, informed observer would consider Spath to have presided over a case in which his potential employer (the Attorney General) appeared. The court vacated all orders issued by Spath after he applied for the job, and dismissed counsels' petition as moot. View "In re: Abd Al-Rahim Hussein Muhammed Al-Nashiri" on Justia Law

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Robinson, a Marine Corps veteran, served in Vietnam from 1966-1969 and later had coronary problems. He sought treatment at a VA medical facility. In 2006, a VA cardiologist recommended that he undergo certain medical testing. The tests, performed 14 months later, revealed that Robinson suffered from left ventricular diastolic dysfunction. The VA granted Robinson a 60% disability rating effective April 2, 2007, the date he underwent cardiac testing. The Board denied Robinson entitlement to a higher rating. In the Veterans Court, Robinson argued for the first time—through the same counsel that represented him before the Board—that his rating should have been assigned an effective date in February 2006, when his doctor ordered tests. The court did not identify any error by the Board but “set aside” its decision and remanded for it to address Robinson’s argument in the first instance. Robinson sought attorney fees, arguing that, because he secured remand, he was a prevailing party under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The Federal Circuit affirmed denial of Robinson’s application. This particular remand did not confer prevailing party status on Robinson because it “was not predicated on administrative error by the Board,” did not materially alter the legal relationship of the parties, and was solely to allow the Board to consider an issue first raised on appeal. View "Robinson v. O'Rourke" on Justia Law

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Petitioner moved for one of the three judges of the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review, Judge William B. Pollard III, to disqualify himself. Judge Pollard is a civilian who serves as a part-time judge on the court. He also maintains a private law practice. Petitioner contends that this arrangement is unlawful and requires Judge Pollard’s disqualification. Petitioner seeks a writ of mandamus ordering Judge Pollard's disqualification. Petitioner argued that Judge Pollard’s disqualification is compelled by the Rules of Practice of the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review; petitioner raises another related argument under the appearance of impartiality standard incorporated into the Rules of Practice; Judge Pollard must disqualify himself because the Judge’s part-time private practice of law violates 18 U.S.C. 203(a), a criminal statute; and Judge Pollard has violated 28 U.S.C. 454, which states that any justice or judge appointed under the authority of the United States who engages in the practice of law is guilty of a high misdemeanor. Although the court concluded that petitioner's arguments carry some force, he has not shown a "clear and indisputable" right to relief at this time. Therefore, the court denied the petition. The court noted that if the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review decides against petitioner in his pending appeal, he may renew his arguments about Judge Pollard on direct appeal to this court. View "In re: Omar Khadr" on Justia Law