Veterans Organizations Reinstate Lawsuit to Force VA to Amend its Character of Discharge Regulations

By National Veterans Legal Services Program

NVLSP and Swords to Plowshares, represented by the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School and Latham & Watkins LLP, are filing on behalf of thousands of veterans denied VA benefits due to less than honorable discharges


ARLINGTON, VA—The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) failed to meet a deadline, suggested by a federal court in February, to publish long overdue regulations amending its Character of Discharge process.  In response, the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) and Swords to Plowshares filed a new petition yesterday for mandamus, asking the court to compel the VA to issue the long-promised and much-needed amendments to its rules that would allow thousands of veterans who currently have less than honorable discharges to obtain critical VA benefits including health care, disability compensation and pensions that they have been wrongfully denied. NVLSP and Swords to Plowshares originally petitioned the VA in 2015 on this matter and the VA agreed to make the regulatory changes.  NVLSP and Swords to Plowshares are represented by pro bono counsel from the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, Latham & Watkins LLP and ZwillGen PLLC.

Approximately 600,000 veterans have less than honorable discharges and may be affected by VA’s new rule. Less than honorable discharges often result from minor disciplinary infractions that are symptomatic of trauma or experiences of injustice during military service. Post 9/11-veterans, veterans of color, LGBTQ+ veterans, Military Sexual Trauma (MST) survivors, and veterans diagnosed with mental health conditions, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), have disproportionately higher rates of these discharges. Most veterans who receive a less than honorable discharge are presumptively stripped of their legal status as a veteran and may be unable to access VA services like healthcare, disability benefits, education programs or housing assistance, regardless of their service record, accolades, or deployment history.

“For years, the VA has disregarded the catastrophic consequences that can befall veterans who fall outside of the system because they are not recognized as ‘veterans’.  It is a betrayal of the pledge we make to our servicemembers when they enlist that we will take care of them and their families if they should sustain injuries or illness in defending our nation,” said Renee Burbank NVLSP Director of Litigation.  “That we have to file yet another lawsuit to get VA to keep its promise to fix its rule is an outrage.”

“As we have for years now, we continue to fight for better regulations for those veterans with less than honorable discharges. The VA has discarded them for too long, and continues to delay improving the current VA system that has proven to be broken and continues to unjustly and unlawfully deny benefits to those who have earned them,” said Michael Blecker, Executive Director of Swords to Plowshares. “Hopefully the Court will agree that enough is enough and compel VA to pass more inclusive, just regulations that consider the reality that many of these veterans are not only deserving of VA care, but are some of the most in need of it.”

“VA conceded that its character of discharge regulations were outdated and in need of reform, and VA committed itself to making new rules. But nonetheless the VA has allowed this rulemaking process to drag on, and meanwhile VA has continued using its flawed regulations to deny thousands of veterans access to life-saving health care and supportive services. Sadly, this delay has impacted perhaps some of the veterans most in need of these services like those who are suffering from toxic exposure to burn pits yet cannot access benefits through the PACT Act or those who are living on the street or afflicted with thoughts of suicide,” said Dana Montalto of the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School. “During the same time we have been fighting for the change to these regulations, the VA has initiated programs to address the growing issues of veteran homelessness as well as suicide prevention efforts. It is difficult to believe that the VA has failed to see that these issues are inextricably connected to their flawed character of discharge regulations. We are now asking the Court to direct VA to uphold its promise to the veterans it was created to serve.”

About Swords to Plowshares

Founded in 1974, Swords to Plowshares is a community-based not-for-profit organization that provides counseling and case management, rapid re-housing and eviction prevention services, employment and training, supportive housing, and legal benefits assistance for low-income, homeless and at-risk veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area. Swords to Plowshares promotes and protects the rights of veterans through advocacy, public education, and partnerships with local, state and national entities. Learn more about the work of Swords to Plowshares, and ways in which you can help, by visiting our website at

About The National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP)

The National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) is an independent, nonprofit veterans service organization that has served active duty military personnel and veterans since 1981. NVLSP strives to ensure that our nation honors its commitment to its 22 million veterans and active duty personnel by ensuring they have the benefits they have earned through their service to our country. NVLSP has represented veterans in lawsuits that compelled enforcement of the law where the VA or other military services denied benefits to veterans in violation of the law. NVLSP’s success in these lawsuits has resulted in more than $5.4 billion dollars being awarded in disability, death and medical benefits to hundreds of thousands of veterans and their survivors. NVLSP offers training for attorneys and other advocates; connects veterans and active duty personnel with pro bono legal help when seeking disability benefits; publishes the nation’s definitive guide on veteran benefits; and represents and litigates for veterans and their families before the VA, military discharge review agencies and federal courts. For more information go to

About The Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School 

The Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School provides pro bono representation to veterans and their family members in a range of veterans and military law matters, as well as pursues initiatives to reform the systems that serve the veterans community. Located at the crossroads of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury in the City of Boston, the Legal Services Center is a community-based public interest law firm. We are home to six legal clinics—Consumer Protection Clinic, Housing Law Clinic, Family Justice Clinic, Tax Litigation Clinic, LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, and the Veterans Legal Clinic—and are Harvard Law School’s largest clinical placement site. The Center’s long-standing mission is to fight for fairness, justice, and legal, economic, and social change, by addressing our community’s civil legal needs and training the next generation of public interest lawyers. For more information, please visit

About Latham & Watkins

Latham & Watkins delivers innovative solutions to complex legal and business challenges around the world. From a global platform, our lawyers advise clients on market-shaping transactions, high-stakes litigation and trials, and sophisticated regulatory matters. Latham is one of the world’s largest providers of pro bono services, steadfastly supports initiatives designed to advance diversity within the firm and the legal profession, and is committed to exploring and promoting environmental sustainability.

About ZwillGen
ZwillGen is a mid-size boutique law firm that specializes in helping clients navigate legal challenges related to data and emerging technologies, including a strong focus on privacy and information security. Founded in 2010, ZwillGen began with a pioneering spirit aimed at offering thoughtful and practical legal advice outside the traditional Big Law framework. Today, ZwillGen is a thriving coast-to-coast firm with nearly forty attorneys across four offices located in Washington, DC, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Media contacts:
For NVLSP: Patty Briotta, 202 621 5698,
For Swords to Plowshares: Katie Ettl, 530-218-2147,

Read More Here

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive news from LSC