By Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Jessica Lagarce
An innovative new program focuses on developing pro bono lawyers to provide civil-side services on behalf of active service members and military veterans.
“I was born to missionary parents in Thailand and spent eight years in South Vietnam at a boarding school during the Vietnam War. I saw it up close in person. I saw our soldiers fighting for freedom for others. These men and women have already paid their legal debt for all of us. Here is an opportunity for us lawyers to serve those who have so courageously served us.” 1
Terry, his wife Amanda and their four little children were in trouble. They had moved out of their apartment after notifying their landlord that they were vacating the deteriorating apartment after months of frustrating, fruitless efforts to restore their place to a livable condition. The roof leaked badly, a repair contractor had crashed through it in their baby’s bedroom, and mold and mildew ensued. Growing crime in the area, including an arson spree, had rendered the premises a veritable hazard zone.
Their unforgiving landlord went after them for back rent and damages, threatening to destroy Terry’s hard earned credit rating. He was in school on the G.I. Bill, Amanda worked two jobs, and their finances were tight. A damaged credit rating would be devastating.
Terry had faced adversity before—as a Marine in Fallujah, Iraq. There at least he had the tools and support to address his problems. Now he was facing the skill and determination of a landlord’s well-paid lawyer and found himself seriously outgunned.
Terry turned to the Ohio Military/Veterans Legal Assistance Project (OMVLAP) for assistance and was quickly contacted by a volunteer lawyer, one of many in central Ohio who had offered their legal services in partial repayment of a debt of gratitude.
“Terry came to my office reluctantly,” said Jim Lewis of Lane, Alton, Horst, LLC and former field artillery officer in the Panama Canal Zone, 193rd Infantry Brigade, U.S. Army. “He was not used to asking for help, but really needed it. I last handled a landlord-tenant dispute about 30 years ago, so I was awfully rusty. But thanks to my OMVLAP refresher course, I knew how to research and advocate Terry’s case. We achieved a nice result for him and his family.”
After a fact investigation and an exchange of correspondence between counsels, the matter was soon settled to Terry’s satisfaction. This would not have happened without the legal representation of OMVLAP’s volunteer lawyer. His intervention leveled the playing field and resulted in justice for Terry and his family.
“It was a very gratifying experience for me, as a lawyer and a citizen,” said Lewis. “That kid put his life on the line for us—for me—so donating some of my time and legal talents to help him solve a problem was a small payback. If we lawyers all chip in, we can make a big difference in the lives of hundreds of veterans and active military in our community who find themselves in need.”
United States veterans are unemployed at a rate over three times the rest of the population. Further, they are having trouble using their military-acquired skills as they search for employment, and therefore often face difficulty in hiring lawyers when faced with legal problems.
In addition to veterans treatment courts and the Ohio “Veterans Wrap-Around Project,” a program that focuses on the many resources available to veterans involved in the court system, the Ohio Military/Veterans Legal Assistance Project, now called “Operation Legal Help Ohio,” focuses on developing pro bono lawyers to wrap services on the civil side of the active servicemember and veteran.2
Our original founders
While I was still a Justice on the Supreme Court and while working on getting veterans’ courts started, I visited a good friend, Paul Freese, of the Public Counsel in Los Angeles, Calif., who was also very active in veterans’ courts. Their firm has enlisted 5,000 lawyers in Los Angeles County to donate pro bono legal services, a large number of them to helping veterans. Paul inspired me to try something similar in Ohio. Originally, my idea was to surround veterans who had been arrested with necessary civil help for related matters, but it soon grew to include those civil legal needs of all low-income active servicemembers and veterans.
I had many original partners in the founding efforts.
Lt. Col. Stephen Lynch, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), legal assistance attorney, U.S. Coast Guard. Steve is the only full-time civilian lawyer assigned to provide legal assistance to active military personnel in Ohio. Since 2001, and as part of his duties with the U.S. Coast Guard, Steve has been providing legal assistance to military personnel in Ohio and around the Great Lakes.
Steve had learned of a pro bono program founded in Michigan by Thomas M. Cooley Law School that focused on active military and wanted to bring the project to Ohio.
Steve had met Lt. Col. Duncan Aukland, Ohio National Guard, State Judge Advocate, and Chief Legal Counsel, Ohio Adjutant General’s Department, at a conference shortly after 9/11, and both were concerned about legal services to the military. They started attending my WrapAround Conferences, and soon we persuaded the Ohio State Bar Association to form the OSBA Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
A group of us then lobbied Wal-Mart Foundation (I had found them through a leadership course I took in Indiana) for our seed money to start.
Our original team was Adam Miller, U.S. Army Reserve JAG Corps and attorney at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP (original chair of the OSBA Military and Veterans Affairs Committee), Duncan Aukland (current chair of the committee), David Shouvlin, long-time pro bono coordinator of Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur LLP, and Jane Taylor, director for Pro Bono and Communications of the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation (OLAF).
Jane early on helped with reaching out to lawyers and groups that would volunteer. The Foundation became OMVLAP’s guiding star and support. OLAF gave, through Angie Lloyd, executive director of OLAF, an office, phones, and accounting support and assisted in developing the Ohio State Bar Foundation (OSBF) grant application.
With the Wal-Mart and OSBF seed money, the beginnings of OMVLAP were taking shape. As Dave Shouvlin summarized, “We started slowly because we did not want to make any false starts. We knew that we had to overcome two obstacles: recruit and train, and educate judges about military and veteran-related issues. The idea was to have a centralized call center that would refer cases throughout the state of Ohio.”
Steve and Duncan contacted Heather Spielmaker, director of the top military pro bono program in the country, Cooley Law School’s Service to Soldiers Legal Clinic, for guidance. Based in Michigan, the program manages more than 120 volunteers who provide free legal assistance to junior military personnel either stationed in the state or deployed to units in other states or overseas. Heather met with Steve and Duncan on two occasions, and shared numerous lessons learned, including the critical need for training of judges, magistrates and lawyers. (This also led to publication of the OSBA’s Ohio Guide to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), and a series of related CLE programs sponsored by the Ohio Judicial College, which helped to expand awareness of the unique needs of military clients and the special protections afforded them by federal and state laws.3).
The first hire and current executive director Mike Renner became the rock that started us on the legal path. Mike was a retired lawyer, former chief counsel to Attorney General Betty Montgomery and first executive director of the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation. He had again retired and was working on several pro bono programs with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. His years of experience in government, non-profits and pro bono work gave us a wealth of experience to start.
OMVLAP started to build capacity before reaching out to its target audience. Working with Jill Snitcher McQuain, executive director of the Columbus Bar Association, and Marion Smithberger, executive director of the Columbus Bar Foundation, we decided to open in the Columbus market. That’s when Capital University Law School stepped up to the plate and offered to house the call center. Shawn Beem, Assistant Dean for Professional Development, became the supervisor at the law school. The call center was first made possible from a $25,000 grant from the William C. and Naoma W. Denison, Robert Bartels, Virginia Hall Beale and Robert B. Hurst funds of the Columbus Foundation.
Now we had a director, a call center, volunteer lawyers, and it was time to open our doors. We launched in February 2013.
OMVLAP became official
Meanwhile, others had joined our team as Mike recruited lawyers, held free training seminars and the call center was handling calls. In early 2013, OMVLAP was incorporated as a non-profit, largely through the time and efforts of new team member, Maj. Melissa Palmisciano, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Judge Advocate, Jones Day, and a team of Jones Day lawyers from Columbus, Boston and New York who donated their time to draft the incorporation and 501(c)(3) paperwork.
The new board
The first board, chaired by me, David Shouvlin, as vice president, Melissa Palmisciano as secretary, and Jane Taylor as treasurer, was off and running. Board members also included founder, Lt. Col. Lynch and Col. Aukland, Shawn Beem, who serves as the supervisor for the intake clerk at the call center, Capt. Jenna Grassbaugh, U.S. Army, Active, OSU law student, founder of the Captain Jonathan D. Grassbaugh Veterans Project at the Ohio State University (after the death of her husband in Iraq), and Fred Stratmann, chief legal counsel of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services.
Over 2013, OMVLAP grew, adding more cities and counties as we enlisted more pro bono lawyers. Mike tirelessly visited region after region. Duncan and Steve taught free after free CLE courses. The Ohio Department of Veterans Services generously printed and donated 20,000 brochures.
Fred Stratmann added, “This is a very important project to us. Our main mission is to advocate for Ohio’s veterans and their families. We frequently hear from veterans experiencing legal problems, and until OMVLAP we had few options for federal . . . OMVLAP addresses an important and sometimes forgotten consequence of military service. We’re proud to support it and be a part of its efforts.”
Other funders, such as the Ross Foundation, joined the Ohio Attorney General, with the Ohio State Bar Foundation renewing another grant.
OMVLAP has now entered into an exciting new partnership with the various legal aids in Ohio. Active servicemembers and veterans calling the OMVLAP toll-free number will reach the intake department of the legal aid in their areas and the intake departments of those offices will screen and triage the calls. All legal issues fitting within the identified scope of OMVLAP will be transferred to the OMVLAP call center at Capital Law School and Legal Aid will review those matters not within OMVLAP’s scope of legal coverage. Many cases will be handled by the new Veterans Legal Corps funded by OLAF and Equal Justice Works and housed at each of the legal aids around the state.
The veterans fellows will also assist with outreach—letting the military community around Ohio know of this service offered by OMVLAP and the legal aids to low-income veterans and active duty service members. This partnership will bring both expense savings in regards to Call Center costs and more lawyers. It will provide additional needed resources for our legal aids during their times of budget cuts. It will also help OMVLAP to expand statewide, its final goal. We have also rebranded “Operation Legal Help Ohio” to more clearly identify what we offer.
We provide volunteer legal assistance to both active servicemembers and veterans whose income does not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. To qualify as a veteran or an immediate family member of a veteran, the veteran must have served on active duty for 90 or more continuous days. The call center now screens phone calls, assesses the legal situation, and then determines if the caller is eligible for OMVLAP assistance. If a Call Center determines a veteran is eligible, the call center will attempt to pair a specially trained OMVLAP lawyer to provide legal assistance at no charge to the client. Once most calls come through the Legal Aid Partnerships, the call center will continue to pair the eligible caller with a lawyer in the area. The areas include debtor and creditor matters and landlord/tenant issues, probate and estate, uncontested divorce or dissolution, and employment issues. We hope to expand as we grow.
Mike Renner sees an optimistic future: “This project is just getting started, but there are already over 150 Ohio lawyers who have volunteered to represent low-income veterans. Hopefully by the end of 2014 there will be 500, 600 or 700 volunteer lawyers representing hundreds of veterans and active duty servicemembers in situations when just a few months before they would be facing an adversary or a judge pro se.”
We hope by the end of 2014, we will have volunteers in all 88 Ohio counties. To join, visit MVLAP.org or OLHOH.org and please register. It is only a click away. Your assistance can make such a difference in the life of someone who has given so much for our country.
“Lawyers across Ohio recognize that they have been served by men and women in uniform, some who have paid the ultimate sacrifice,” said Renner. “Volunteering to serve them back is a small way to say thank you. So when a veteran with limited resources, who can’t afford to hire a lawyer, finds himself engaged with our civil justice system, one of a network of volunteer lawyers can now stand at his side and offer pro bono representation. We can serve those who have served us.”
Evelyn Lundberg Stratton retired from the bench after serving as a trial judge for 7 years and a justice for 16 years. She is the daughter of American missionaries and was raised in Thailand. She is now of counsel to Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, LLP, and a national advocate on criminal justice issues, particularly focusing on active military and veterans.
Jessica Lagarce served as an extern to Justice Stratton while a student at Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Lagarce was admitted to the Ohio bar in May 2012 and is employed as legal counsel for Columbus Hospitality Management.
1 Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Veterans Day Message from Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Comprehensive Veterans Treatment Courts, PTS, TBI & MST News Clips, Nov. 2013.
2 See Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton & Jessica Lagarce, “Restoring Honor Inside Veterans’ Courts,” Ohio Lawyer, March/April 2012, at 9; see Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton & Jessica Lagarce, “Veterans WrapAround Project,” Ohio Lawyer, November/December 2012, at 24.
3 The SCRA was enacted in 2003, which revised and expanded the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act and is intended to enable persons on active duty in the military services of the United States to devote their entire energy to the defense needs of the nation by alleviating some of the financial burden of loans, lines of credit and, in certain cases, suspending enforcement of civil liabilities. Some of the law’s protections extend to a service member’s spouse, child or individual for whom the service member provides support as well as co-borrowers or guarantors on debt of those in active military service. Benefits and protections under the SCRA include interest rate on loans and obligations on debt incurred prior to entering active duty is capped at 6 percent (e.g., mortgages, student loans, credit cards, auto loans); protection against foreclosure, set-off, repossession, and eviction; and limits on default judgment actions.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Ohio Lawyer, the Ohio State Bar Association member magazine. Join the OSBA today, and get every issue of Ohio Lawyer for free.