Appeals court gives California veteran's widow a break

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 9, 2013 

A veteran's widow who has faced endless travails will now get another chance to secure survivors' benefits, under an appellate court ruling Monday.

In a ruling that includes some heartbreaking details, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ordered the court that handles veterans' appeals to take another look at Marva J. Sneed's case.

Mrs. Sneed is the surviving spouse of veteran Reginald A. Sneed, who served on active duty from June 1964 to June 1968. The nature and location of Mr. Sneed's service can be surmised by the nature of his service-related disabilities, which included post-traumatic stress, post-concussion syndrome, ringing in the ears and upper extremity scarring.

That sounds like combat.

In 2001, Mr. Sneed fell and was rendered quadriplegic. It gets worse. In October 2003, Mr. Sneed was living in a nursing home with another paralyzed veteran. There was a fire in the home, and all of the residents died from smoke inhalation. Mr. Sneed was 57.

Mrs. Sneed filed a claim. The VA rejected her. It gets worse. She retained an attorney to appeal, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. A day before the filing deadline, the attorney said she wasn't taking the case. Mrs. Sneed eventually filed, late, and was rejected.

The question: Should the veterans court have given Mrs. Sneed more time because of the attorney abandonment? On Monday, the Federal Circuit said yes.

"The hardship of default resulting from attorney abandonment is particularly difficult to bear in the context of an appeal to the Veterans Court, which is often the veteran’s first opportunity to be represented by an attorney," the Federal Circuit reasoned.

Mrs. Sneed was represented by William Burgess of Kirkland and Ellis, and by Benjamin A. Herbert of Los Angeles.


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