When representing disabled soldiers, Michael Pasquale never accepts defeat
Published in 2013 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
on December 12, 2013
Updated on October 22, 2019
They walk slowly into his office, uncertain and fearful. Some limp. Some are disfigured. Some have lost limbs. Others have cognitive and other serious problems due to traumatic brain injuries or struggle with emotional issues due to post-traumatic stress disorder. Many suffer from a combination of disabilities of mind, body and spirit. All are looking for help.
They are U.S. military service members injured in Afghanistan or Iraq.
They come to Michael Pasquale for help to understand—and fight—the Department of Defense process that determines whether they will be discharged from the military and, if discharged, their level of disability and consequently, their pensions and health care. “We will make sure laws are applied properly,” he reassures them, “and that no mistakes are made.”
Pasquale is a partner at McCarter & English, a venerable 400-lawyer firm headquartered in Newark, N.J. In recent years, without charging a nickel, he has helped numerous wounded military personnel navigate the complicated disability evaluation system and secure better benefits for themselves and their families. He has become a hero to America’s wounded warriors.
Pasquale, 43, was never in the military himself. He jokes that he has always been wary of authority and had a big mouth—a bad combination for a soldier, but good for a lawyer.
He grew up in Montclair, N.J., amid a noisy, extended Italian-American family that emphasized love, food and helping others. Pasquale’s first act of charity came at age 7, walking down the street with his father, a Wall Street investment adviser. A homeless man approached, hand out. His father moved between Pasquale and the man, but the boy stood his ground. “Dad,” he asked, after they’d passed the man, “can we help that man?” His father gave him a dollar, and young Pasquale handed it to the homeless man.
When Pasquale was 12, his father, Tony, died suddenly. His mother, Karen, a school librarian, became a paralegal to help support her two sons. After majoring in English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pasquale went to New York Law School. “I wanted to make the world a better place,” he says. “And you have to know the rules if you are going to help change them.”
After graduating in 1995, Pasquale’s first job was with Tompkins, McGuire, Wachenfeld & Barry, a mid-sized Newark firm that routinely had him in court defending small liability cases. “It was a great training ground,” he says. “The rules in court are the same whether the case is for $50,000 or $25 million.”
After five years, he moved to a larger firm, Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello, where he handled bigger cases. In one 2005 case against lawyers from McCarter & English, his clients expected a $250,000 recovery at best, but Pasquale maneuvered the case to a $3 million settlement. Impressed, McCarter & English offered him a job.
Soon after joining the firm, William S. Greenberg, a retired Army Reserve brigadier general and then a McCarter & English partner, asked Pasquale to join a New Jersey State Bar Association program to provide free legal services to soldiers. At first, Pasquale helped soldiers and vets with anything and everything, including contracts and tenancy matters.
In 2007, he took on his first military separation case—a badly wounded soldier who thought his medical assessment and resulting military discharge were incorrect, but did not want to disobey orders by not accepting it. The soldier was a civil engineer, a reservist who had deployed to Iraq. Injured in a mortar attack, he had undergone seven surgeries and had permanent hearing loss and cognitive impairment due to a traumatic brain injury. He was an engineer who could no longer read a blueprint.
Despite being unable to serve in the Army, work as an engineer or even complete everyday tasks, the engineer was found only 10 percent disabled. That meant he would not receive a disability pension at all—only a one-time payment upon his military discharge—and his family would not receive health benefits.
Pasquale plunged into the morass of military rules and regulations, and the engineer emerged with a 70 percent disability rating. The resulting increase meant he would receive 70 percent of his base pay, as well as health benefits for both him and his family for life.
Word spread among wounded warriors, and Pasquale began receiving inquiries from all over the country. McCarter & English encouraged Pasquale, supporting him with time, administrative help and legal assistance. In 2012, he became a firm partner.
Pasquale has become an expert—possibly the country’s leading expert in the country—on the convoluted rules for separation cases. Several bodies of often-contradictory laws and army regulations, some dating to the 1940s, govern the process. Military attorneys typically don’t get involved until far into a case, so in disability proceedings, Pasquale is always the only attorney in the room.
That’s fine with him. He doesn’t want the process to be adversarial, even on occasions when cases end up before the formal appeals tribunals in Arlington, Va., where he faces a board comprised of high-ranking service members and physicians.
Over the past seven years, Pasquale has helped more than 100 veterans, and in all but a handful of cases, his clients came away with better pensions and benefits. “Sometimes I can get dramatic results with just a letter,” he notes.
In the time that Pasquale has been involved, the military has become more willing to recognize PTSD and related psychological problems as serious disabilities. “I don’t know if that was because of General Greenberg and myself, but we fought and argued hard for it,” he says.
“The America soldier or veteran has no better friend than Mike Pasquale,” says Greenberg, who is now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
Indeed, Pasquale has stacks of letters and emails from grateful military clients, but is reluctant to offer their names because of privacy concerns.
From an Army master sergeant: “Because of your help, not only did I receive a favorable decision, but it is far more than I expected. I truly know that the only reason—and I do mean only reason—I received this decision is because of your diligence and professionalism.”
From a staff sergeant: “The Army has a warrior’s ethos: I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never quit, I will never leave a fallen comrade. This is that true commitment that Mr. Pasquale gave me when I needed it most. I found that he, too, lived by the warrior’s ethos.”
From another master sergeant: “Attorney Mike Pasquale is a blessing and, through his tireless efforts, brought back my dignity as a U.S. soldier and a human being. … I know a lot of time and personal sacrifice was placed into every effort of our battle. His energy level and knowledge of the law within the military is exemplary.”
Pasquale, meanwhile, wishes he could do more. He argues that the discharge process should be simplified, and notes that it would save money if—instead of haggling over the values of body parts and injuries—any solder ruled unfit for duty automatically received a 75 percent disability rating.
“They not only need help, but have earned it and deserve it,” he says. “A majority of these people, I am trying to keep them in the middle class. For their sacrifice to their country, they’re about to be awarded with poverty.”
In addition to his own pro bono work, Pasquale trains attorneys from other firms and corporations to handle separation cases. He also works with the JAG counsel provided to defend soldiers on a limited basis. “It’s tough to get people to work for free, and not every lawyer can do it,” he says.
Pasquale’s pro bono work takes up between 400 to 600 hours a year. He typically has 15 to 20 military cases at any given time—an absurd pro bono load for most lawyers.
“Mike Pasquale is the real deal,” says Michael P. Kelly, chairman of McCarter & English. “He does this because he has the biggest heart of anyone I know.”
His busy schedule has led Pasquale to cut down on most of his leisure pursuits and socializing with friends. Life today is about work and family: his wife, Anna, and their two young daughters, Sophie and Olivia.
He hopes disabled veterans will eventually no longer need to fight so hard to receive the disability benefits they deserve.
“I’m not happy I have to do this work,” he says. “[But] this is like a dream come true for me, to be able to help people who need it. …This has made me proud to be a lawyer.”