MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As our nation’s veterans return from service and transition to civilian life, they are faced with a variety of challenges the general population may not experience. Physical ailments due to injury sustained in combat, as well as the emotional issues that stem from post-traumatic stress disorder, are common for veterans, who often turn to the resources provided by U.S. Veterans Affairs and their local communities to help them adjust.
For some, however, other challenges develop as legal issues may arise that they do not have the means to fight on their own. Whether the issue is related to receiving benefits, divorce, bankruptcy or a variety of other legal matters, veterans of all ages and service backgrounds need a helping hand. Fortunately, with support from donors and the legal professionals at the West Virginia University College of Law, the Veterans Advocacy Clinic has been able to provide these valuable legal services and give back to those who have given so much.
Under the guidance of Program Director Jed Nolan, the Veterans Advocacy Clinic utilizes the rising legal talent and services of WVU College of Law students to provide needed legal aid and counsel to veterans, creating a mutually beneficial opportunity that has already made a tremendous impact.
“We have two main goals in the Veterans Advocacy Clinic,” Nolan said. “One is to reach out and provide legal services to any veteran who wants to talk to us about any legal matter. We are also trying to train the next generation of attorneys to come out and be service-oriented and to have a background of helping people who need it and gain experience.”
The Wildman case
This past fall, the VAC was presented with a case from a local veteran who needed assistance, and clinic participants were happy to take on the case, providing valuable legal aid and experience.
The call came from Dennis Wildman, a West Virginia native and Vietnam veteran who enlisted in the Army and served in the infantry at 17 years old. After sustaining two gunshot wounds and earning a Purple Heart, Wildman was discharged in June 1968 and went on to join the International Union of Operating Engineers, where he made a career operating machinery like cranes, bulldozers and excavators. Now a Grafton resident, Wildman was interested in having solar panels installed on his home to save on electricity costs and raise the property value of the house he hopes to pass on to his son one day.
“It was a very big company,” Wildman recalled. “I contacted them, and they sent a representative out to talk to me. He was there for a long time. They had me initial papers, but I didn’t know what it was for.”
After being pressured to sign the same day the representative spoke with him, Wildman agreed to an initial quote of $52,000 for 22 solar panels. With little communication from the company and threats of serious financial ramifications if he pulled out of the deal, Wildman decided to move forward with the project. Soon after, Wildman learned that his project was being financed by a separate company, and his final bill would be more than $77,000.
On Sept. 13, 2022, the panels were eventually put on his home over the course of two days and turned on, but the job wasn’t finished. Following what Wildman describes as a sloppy installation that created a potential fire hazard and left holes in his metal roof, he sought answers. From there, a new set of issues arose.
“Finally, I talked to the salesman, and he told me the company shut their doors,” Wildman said. “The finance company evidently gave them the money before they ever finished the job. I don’t know how you do that. Usually, if I have a contractor working for me, if they get the roof up, I’ll pay for that, but they gave it all.
“The work was not finished. When the company went bankrupt, the way I figured it is that I don’t have a contract because they went bankrupt.”
The lending company then told Wildman they would arrange for another contractor to come and finish the work. In the interim, he was warned about the fire hazard and cautioned that his roof may not be able to withstand the weight of the panels. When added to the “bait and switch” with the project costs, these serious defects led Wildman to distrust the company’s ability to make it right.
With uncertainty about how the project would move forward and how he would ultimately be charged, Wildman shut down the bank account affiliated with the project and sought help. Wildman turned to the VA, which recommended he fill out an application detailing his situation and submit it to the Veterans Advocacy Clinic at WVU.
The meeting process with the VAC began with a phone call in which Wildman spoke with Nolan, who collected the pertinent information on the case. Nolan then turned to Peter Carlton, a third-year law student at the WVU College of Law and Marine Corps veteran who recently began working with the VAC.
“The Veterans Clinic was a natural segue, I suppose,” Carlton said. “I wanted to get some experience doing hands-on stuff. I think the law school does a great job of the classroom side of things, and this is the more practical application of things. I wanted to put rubber to the road, so to speak.”
As he began working with Wildman, Carlton researched the legality of the situation and developed a strategy to move forward. Ideally, Wildman could bring a claim against the company that sold him and installed the panels for the “bait and switch” sales tactics and for the defective installation. However, the solar company had filed for bankruptcy protection before Wildman could pursue a claim.
“Due to the company filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, they are given an automatic stay,” Carlton explained. “This automatic stay precludes creditors – like Mr. Wildman – from going after the company for money owed. Fortunately, there’s a principle called the Holder in Due Course Theory.”
Under this theory, the finance company would be responsible because it assumed the contract from the solar company before the bankruptcy, which means that the finance company is entitled to collect all the payments from the contract but is also responsible for anything that the solar panel company did wrong.
Carlton said he is now working with the finance company to renegotiate the principal amount of Wildman’s loan to match the original quote. Should those negotiations fail, the clinic stands ready to litigate on Wildman’s behalf.
The impact of donor dollars
In years past, the VAC would not have been able to accept a civil legal matter like this case.
“We will likely have to hire expert contractors to review the installation as well as expert electricians to review the solar panels themselves,” Nolan said. “Without the increased donor support, the VAC could not have adequately provided the representation needed on such a complex matter.”
While the proceedings are ongoing and no resolution has yet been reached, Wildman is thrilled with the services he’s been provided and feels fortunate that the VAC has extended a helping hand.
“It’s really nice,” Wildman said. “I tell people when I go to the Veterans Hospital, for instance, the VAC treats me better than I deserve.”
This legal aid, which Wildman says he would never have been able to afford if not for the help of the VAC, is largely made possible by generous donors. By providing funds that aid in legal fees and programmatic expenses, students like Carlton and the rest of Nolan’s VAC team can give back to those who served their country.
“The fact that we have donors who have been very generous in their support of veterans is allowing us to reach out and take these cutting-edge cases,” Nolan said. “Having this donor assistance really helps us be there for veterans like Mr. Wildman.”
Alumni and friends interested in supporting the Veterans Advocacy Clinic at the WVU College of Law can visit give.wvu.edu/law to contribute to the WVU College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic Fund online or contact Assistant Dean for Development Jennie L. James at Jennie.James@mail.wvu.edu or 304-293-7367 for more information.
Gifts to the Veterans Advocacy Clinic are made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.
CONTACT: Sean McNamara
Associate Director of Donor Engagement and Fund Stewardship