Maria Ceballos-Zagales

The Project

Maria established a mobile legal clinic to provide legal services and educational outreach to vulnerable military veterans throughout Florida. Her Fellowship aims to empower at-risk veterans to obtain employment, stable housing, financial security, and VA benefits they deserve.

Inadequate access to justice is an acute problem for Florida’s veterans due to a variety of reasons including mental and physical conditions, misinformation, inadequate outreach, and logistical obstacles. Moreover, veterans facing Post Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma may struggle to (1) access VA healthcare and benefits, (2) obtain employment, and (3) avoid homelessness and incarceration. The veterans mobile legal clinic eliminates these barriers by serving veterans where they are.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Maria has:

  • Provided legal services to over 50 Veterans throughout the State on a variety of legal issues, including family law, housing, guardianships, VA benefits, and discharge upgrades
  • Met with six community stakeholder organizations, including members of the Florida Bar Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and other organizations providing legal services to veterans
  • Promoted the mobile legal clinic project in various meetings throughout the state with stakeholders that included homeless coalitions, local service providers, community groups, legal services organizations, and national advocacy groups for veterans
  • Established a collaborative relationship with the local law schools to create partnerships
  • Completed a trial prep multi-day course with NITA and applied for VA certification

Next Steps

In the next six months, Maria plans to:

  • Work with sponsors to increase the project’s pro bono capacity
  • Work with grant writers to identify and begin to establish sustainability opportunities

As a family member of veterans who have served in every military branch, I understand veterans need access to legal services to minimize the negative impact combat-related trauma has on their lives and the lives of their family members.

Maria Ceballos-Zagales /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Tiffany worked to tackle the unmet legal needs of veterans who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental health conditions due to military sexual trauma (MST) by creating a national pro bono program to represent those veterans on their disability compensation claims before the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

A large number of military personnel are survivors of sexual assaults committed by other service members. The most commonly diagnosed mental disorder for those who have experienced a sexual assault in the military is PTSD. Tragically, because many of these survivors were fearful of reporting the assaults while they were in service, many veterans who suffer from PTSD or other mental health conditions as a result of a military sexual assault face an exceptionally high hurdle in obtaining disability compensation and adequate treatment from the VA. These survivors can prevail on their VA claims if they secure an effective advocate who is able to take the time to thoroughly review all military medical and personnel records and develop the evidence needed to support their VA claims. Unfortunately, there is currently a severe shortage of expert pro bono representation available.

Fellowship Highlights

In the past two years, Tiffany has:

  • Established the overarching standard operating procedures for the MST program, which is now a signature program of NVLSP
  • Placed 41 cases for survivors of MST with pro bono VA-accredited attorneys
  • Created a complete body of training materials on MST and trained approximately 70 pro bono attorneys
  • Assisted 6 veterans in obtaining VA disability compensation for a mental disorder due to MST and 1 in obtaining temporary disability retirement from the military
  • Assisted 14 veterans in obtaining low-cost private mental health evaluations from university psychology training clinics at 10 different universities
  • Given brief services and/or referrals to 207 veterans

Where are they now?

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Tiffany plans to:

  • Continue in public interest through work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a Regulatory Counsel.
  • Provide pro bono assistance to underserved populations throughout her legal career

The Project

As veterans return from deployments, many struggle with physical and mental health challenges caused by their military service. Some veterans receive a less-than-fully-honorable characterization of service that bars them from accessing VA benefits. They are eligible to apply for a discharge upgrade, and Congress and the Department of Defense have recently made it easier for veterans who suffer from service-connected PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury to win an upgrade. But very few veterans have access to an affordable lawyer to assist them with those proceedings, even though legal representation can make a huge difference in a veteran’s likelihood of success.

Jessica will represent central North Carolina veterans discharge upgrade applications and VA benefit appeals, and initiate a UNC law clinic to empower UNC law students to advocate for veterans in the same proceedings.

Fellowship Highlights

In the past two years, Jessica has:

  • Secured or applied for discharge upgrades for veterans who were less-than-honorably discharged for their sexuality, for misconduct caused by mental health conditions, and in violation of their due process rights, among other reasons.
  • Supervised 11 UNC Law students who represented clients in discharge upgrade cases, before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and in federal court.
  • In partnership with the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center, launched a series of drop-in advice clinics at local VA medical facilities for pro bono attorneys from North Carolina to advise on family law, criminal law, and other matters.

What’s Next

Now that the Fellowship is complete, Jessica plans to:

  • Join Protect Democracy as a Counsel to work on rule of law and the protection of democratic norms.
  • Stay involved with veterans issues as a pro bono attorney volunteer.

The Project

Abbey developed a medical-legal partnership with the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center to provide chronically homeless veterans with legal services focused on obtaining income and housing stability.

The streets of Los Angeles are home to nearly 5,000 military veterans on any given night. Many of them suffer from severe disabilities which stem from service-related injuries. Although VA benefits can provide veterans with stable income, these life-changing benefits are already incredibly difficult for many veterans to access given the immense complexity of the VA benefits system. Coupled with the significant challenges that come with homelessness and disability, access can be impossible. Medical teams comprising experienced physicians, psychologists, and clinical residents, like the one at the Center of Excellence (CoE) at the West L.A. VA Medical Center, provide comprehensive healthcare to the most vulnerable veterans. However, without income and housing stability many of those veterans are unable to regularly attend appointments and their health deteriorates. Access to an attorney to appeal wrongful denials of benefits is a critical step toward positive health outcomes and stable housing for veterans.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship period, Abbey:

  • Developed a medical-legal partnership with the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center and the Center of Excellence
  • Won over $700,000 in retroactive benefits for her clients and secured about $480,000 total in monthly benefits
  • Maintained a caseload of about 60 veteran clients, referred to her by healthcare providers at the Center of Excellence
  • Trained 250 medical providers, first year medical residents, and pro bono attorneys
  • Collaborated with 4 partner organizations including the Bob Woodruff Foundation, the National Center for Medical Legal Partnerships, the VA Office of General Counsel MLP task force, and the VA Office of General Counsel

Next Steps

Following her Fellowship, Abbey has stayed on as a staff attorney with Inner City Law Center,  where she continues to staff the Medical-Legal Partnership that she created during her time as a Fellow.