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July 31, 2008 4:41 PM

PRO BONO 2008: Weil Wins One For Military Widows

Posted by Brian Baxter

With the country at war, it makes sense that fighting for the rights of military veterans has been a popular pro bono endeavor in recent years.

One of the many firms contributing resources to the cause, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, scored a major victory in June with a win on summary judgment that could result in more than $30 million in reinstated benefits for the widows of disabled veterans.

At issue was a Defense Department interpretation of the Veterans Benefits Act of 2003, which requires a cut in benefits to widows who remarry after age 57.

Weil IP litigator Edward Reines, the supervising partner of an associate-led team that represented the widows, says the government’s interpretation of the law discouraged widows from remarrying.

"The veterans community felt very strongly about this case," he says.

Claiming that the benefits should be immediately restored, Weil filed a complaint in June 2007 on behalf of three surviving spouses of deceased veterans against the Defense Department in the Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.

"We called them the Gold Wives Club," Reines says of the plaintiffs, one of whom was the widow of a former brigadier general.

The case was referred to the firm by a lawyer for Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a Cold Spring, Ky.-based nonprofit that advocates for wounded veterans and their families. (In his capacity as president of the Bar Association of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, Reines has done pro bono work on veterans' issues in the past.)

Led by IP associates Michael Franzinger and Azra Hadzimehmedovic and supported by IP associates Paul Ehrlich and Rip Finst, Weil argued that the Pentagon was misinterpreting the federal law and brought motions for summary judgment before Court of Federal Claims Judge George Miller. (There's some logic to the idea that IP litigators would take on veterans' cases; while the Federal Circuit is a battleground for IP litigation, its jurisdiction also overlaps to include veterans' affairs.)

The Defense Department was represented by a team of lawyers led by trial attorney Douglas Mickle from the Justice Department's civil division.

On June 12, Judge Miller ruled in favor of Weil's argument, which entitled the three named plaintiffs to a total of $150,000 in back benefits. As a result of the decision, Franzinger says, several hundred widows may now be entitled to benefits; a Government Accountability Office report estimated the total value of those benefits could exceed $30 million.

The government has not indicated whether it plans to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Reines, who accepted the 2008 Pro Bono Award from DAV on Weil’s behalf at a ceremony in San Antonio earlier this year, estimates the firm spent roughly 200 hours on the case. And though Weil can seek legal fees as a result of the decision--and has pledged to donate any such to charity--that doesn’t concern Reines in the least.

"It's just humbling to serve those who have given so much for our country," he says. "Our contribution pales in comparison."

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