Lawsuit accuses Maryland-based disability claims firm of unlawful practices

Lawsuit accuses Maryland-based disability claims firm of unlawful practices

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By FATEMA HOSSEINI

WASHINGTON – A recent lawsuit filed on behalf of veterans alleges that Just4Veterans, a Clarksburg, Maryland-based disability claims consultancy that operates nationally, is violating federal law.

The company is accused of operating without the required Veterans Administration accreditation and imposing consulting fees that are illegally excessive.

The lawsuit, filed in Circuit Court for Montgomery County by the Pels Law Firm in Bethesda, Maryland, alleges that Just4Veterans charged Air Force veteran Grant Gallagher, of San Antonio, Texas, a fee of more than $7,000, five times the increase in his monthly disability benefits that the firm helped him obtain.

In a text message to Capital News Service, Just4Veterans owner Frederick Castanos Justo declined to comment on the lawsuit against him and his company but added: “Gallagher has an outstanding invoice to my company,” he said. “This is under investigation and I will see him in court to collect his outstanding debt.”

Gallagher joined the Air Force in March 2016 as an information technology specialist, was “ deployed in support of special operations units in Africa and received recognition (coined) by the seal team 10 commander,” Gallagher told CNS in written responses to questions.

As of August 2022, 4.9 million veterans –  27% of all veterans, had a service-connected disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Veterans Benefits Administration last year processed over 1.7 million claims related to disability compensation and pensions for veterans, setting a new record for the VA and exceeding the prior year’s record by 12%.

Many veterans have complained that the system is overly cumbersome and confusing.

The lawsuit against Just4Veterans claims that “Justo relies on his personal status as a veteran to gain other veterans’ trust and to entice other veterans to enter into contracts with Just4Veterans.”

After Gallagher had been out of the service for nearly a year, on February 23, he entered into a contract with Just4Veterans to help him obtain an increase in his VA disability rate from 90% to 100% disabled.

“The contract was for ‘coaching services’ and I felt rushed by the guy I was talking to into signing the contract,” Gallagher said.  “I was ‘pitched’ that they can help me get to 100% VA disabled.”

Documents from the lawsuit show that on April 15, Gallagher was billed $7,426.95, and then asked to pay a lump sum payment of $6,878.09, which included “a 10% discount.”

On April 25, Gallagher had made a payment of $742.69, followed by another payment of $300.00 on July 1.

“This worked out to be an approx $7,500 ‘fee’ when in reality they likely spent less than four hours worth of work,” Gallagher wrote. “They are not accredited and I feel like they are preying on veterans.”

Gallagher also said he is uncomfortable knowing the firm has personal information about him.

“Additionally due to the nature of the information they have about me… I certainly felt uneasy about them possibly using that info against me in a malicious way and I have had a couple PTSD anxiety attacks around this thought,” Gallagher said.

According to the Just4Veterans website, owner Justo is a retired veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 23 years.

“Recognizing the need to provide Veterans help in processing their VA disability claims, Fred has started Just4Veterans to aid veterans get the highest VA rating possible,” the company’s website states.

According to the Just4Veterans contract with Gallagher attached as part of the lawsuit, “J4V does NOT assist Client with the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of his/her VA disability claims for VA benefits. Client shall prepare and file his/her own claim utilizing free government websites.”

Contrary to what’s outlined in the contract, Gallagher said he had a different experience.

“I had all my documentation ready to go so they basically just organized it, told me what to claim, and had me log into my VA.gov account, then submitted my own documents as me via a zoom call where they took control over my mouse,” Gallagher explained. “This didn’t feel right to me when it was happening but I didn’t realize this was illegal for them to do.”

An increasing number of veterans organizations have complained recently about firms that charge exorbitant rates for claims assistance.

Congress has also heard testimony about the rise of so-called “claim sharks” – companies that charge more than legally permitted for preparing VA claim documents.

“Veterans seeking to access their benefits should not face another battle to do so,” Rep. Chris Pappas, D-New Hampshire, said in a statement in February.

He reintroduced the Governing Unaccredited Representatives Defrauding (GUARD) VA Benefits Act, which would impose penalties on non-accredited firms.

“Unfortunately, unaccredited, for-profit companies are scamming veterans of their earned benefits under the guise of helping them, and they must be stopped and held accountable,” Pappas charged.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said that “for too long, heinous actors have taken advantage of and preyed upon veterans in need of assistance, without consequences, and this practice must end.”

In April 2022, Ryan Galluci, the executive director of the Washington office of Veterans of Foreign Wars, shared his concerns over non-accredited consulting groups targeting veterans before a subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

“Certain predatory companies have used the confusion created by the COVID-19 pandemic to infiltrate networks of veterans in need, and have grown by more than six hundred percent in the last two years alone,” Galluci said.

He added that based on the VFW’s long-term observations of these companies, it’s evident that they have no intention of complying with existing regulations.

Rather than focusing on altering the VA accreditation system to favor these unethical companies, the committee should prioritize enforcing penalties for those who blatantly breach VA guidelines, Galluci said,

Jon Pels, a Bethesda-based lawyer representing Gallagher, told CNS that “what is ironic about what we believe the defendants will argue in these cases is…they are not accredited and therefore they can charge whatever they want.”

“…However, to assist disabled veterans you need to be accredited,” Pels said. “So it is a very circular argument. It would be like somebody charging illegal and excessive fees as an attorney to a worker’s compensation client but then arguing, ‘well I’m not a licensed attorney so I can charge whatever I want.’”

In early September, an employee of Just4Veterans, who called himself  “Coach Sion,” sent a text message to Gallagher. According to the text message attached in the lawsuit, Sion threatened to contact Gallagher’s employer and to bring legal action against him if he refused to pay the fees.

“My goal is to prevent this from requiring legal action which will result in additional fee’s (sic.) being added to your invoice as well as court cost. We will also reach to (sic.) your employer to discuss garnishment actions,” the text said.

The text also said that “as Military Veterans one of the most important traits is INTEGRITY which comes along with trust.” The text added that “this is a legal binding contract which will be enforced through legal matters if required.”

The lawsuit alleges Just4Veterans is aware that charging veterans fees for any assistance with claims for VA disability benefits by unaccredited organizations is illegal.

“Defendants contort the language on their website and in their contract(s) to make it seem that they are not assisting veterans and charging illegal fees,” the lawsuit says.

The suit points to the company contract, attached as part of the lawsuit, which clearly states that ”J4V is NOT accredited VSO, VA claims agent, or attorney. J4V does NOT represent the Client before the VA as an advocate or a legal representative and does not provide legal advice. While J4V may provide practical, legal, and educational advice in certain situations, Client acknowledges that this is NOT legal advice in any way.”

However, the lawsuit says, the Just4Veterans’ website suggests otherwise: “Helping Veterans to Get the Benefits They Deserve,” it states in bold blue letters.

“Just4Veterans VA claims assistance will walk you through every step of the application process,” the website states under “Our Services.”

There are 30 “veteran coaches” with the company, including Justo, most of whom say they are retired Marines working for Just4Veterans, according to the website.

“Fred lived with his mission to help veterans…He gave an opportunity on (sic.) other Veterans who he shared the same values with to be a coach to other veterans in need,” the company’s website says.

Pels, in an interview, recommended that veterans in need of claims help should consult reputable veteran organizations like the VFW for recommendations on lawyers or service providers.

Gallagher said the experience left him with “a terrible feeling.”

“To feel ‘used’ by a company that proudly boasts about being ‘for the veteran’ is a terrible feeling and hurts, to feel like after you just gave a part of yourself for our country that people are so quick to try and profit off you and your entitlements,” he said.

“I hope companies like this disappear for good and we can get more funding for VSOs (Veterans Service Organizations) who can actually help veterans get the benefits they earned through their sacrifice to our country without ripping them off,” Gallagher said.

About The Author

Capital News Service

aflynn1@umd.edu

Capital News Service is a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. With bureaus in Annapolis and Washington run by professional journalists with decades of experience, they deliver news in multiple formats via partner news organizations and a destination Website.

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