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I won at the court – Now, what have I won?

Many veterans whose claims are appealed successfully to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) are confused and even dismayed to realize that no money is coming to them from VA even though they have won their cases. This dismay sometimes becomes greater when they learn that their lawyer got paid for work at the court. If I don’t get any benefits, the veteran asks, what have I won?

The short answer is that the veteran has won the ability to continue his or her claim at the agency with the same effective date for any benefits that are eventually awarded. If the appeal to the CAVC is lost, then the claims are dead and have to reopened, with a new possible effective date no earlier than the reopened claims.

The CAVC does not grant benefits and, with very rare exceptions, its judgments do not immediately result in the VA granting benefits. This is because the Court is a court of appeals, a court of review. What it reviews is the VA claims process and whether it was properly carried out under the law in a given case – not whether the ultimate decision on benefits was correct. That is why a favorable decision from the court does not result in benefits being awarded but instead results in the case going back (being “remanded”) to the VA for further development and another decision. The court considers only whether where are ways in which VA did not follow the law in developing and deciding the claim, so when it concludes that VA did fail to follow the law, the remedy is to have the agency redo the process without making the same error. The hope is that VA will do everything correctly next time, but, alas, that is often not the case; another trip to the court is then required to get the new error straightened out.

The nature of the court’s review is why arguments before the court are not about why benefits should be awarded but rather about how the Board was wrong in some aspect of its decision denying the benefits. The court’s role as assigned by Congress is to correct such errors and then let the agency (VA) take another crack at doing it right.

So how is it that a lawyer would be paid for a “win” at the court but the client not see any money? Most lawyers who represent clients at the CAVC do so without charging a fee to the clients. This is possible because the lawyer – who is not a charity, after all, but must pay the rent and light bill like everyone else – will be paid, if successful on the appeal to the court, by the government under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). Note the emphasis: the lawyer gets paid only if successful, so she is still gambling, since she could spend a great deal of time and effort and still not get paid if she loses. That is why lawyers offer such representation only where they believe there are errors in the Board decision that the court will wish to correct. The money paid to lawyers under EAJA is not taken from the client in any way; indeed, if benefits are eventually awarded by VA and the veteran is represented by the lawyer under a contingent fee agreement, the lawyer must refund to the client a portion of the fee equal to the EAJA payment the lawyer received.