In the summer of 2018, a court decision changed the way veterans can seek redress for certain grievances through the legal system when it comes to filing lawsuits against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Legal precedents are always complex for those who are not trained in the law and the case that opens the door to class action lawsuits against the Department of Veterans Affairs is no exception.
At first glance, it appears that the outcome of a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims dealt a blow to veterans seeking to sue the VA (the court ultimately decided against the plaintiff) but the court’s decision includes language that opens the door to future class action lawsuits involving the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Monk Vs. Wilkie
A case brought before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is called Monk Vs. Wilkie (the Wilkie named in the suit refers to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs at the time of the lawsuit, Robert Wilkie).
The lawsuit started in 2015 when plaintiff Conley F. Monk, Jr., filed a petition with the court for “extraordinary relief.” Monk’s petition included a request that the court direct the Secretary of the VA to “decide certain appeals within 1 year after a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) was submitted,” according to court documents.
An important detail here is that Monk filed this petition to the court on his own behalf but also “similarly situated persons facing financial and medical hardship.”
According to Monk’s petition, delays in settling disability compensation claims may be a constitutional violation of the right to due process. The petition adds that the VA Secretary’s “delay in adjudicating disability compensation claims amounts to an arbitrary refusal to act.”
The Court interpreted portions of this petition motion for a class action, which ultimately resulted in ruling against the plaintiff because, according to court documents, the court held it does not have the authority to preside over class action claims of this nature.
Furthermore, according to published reports the court also ruled that the petitioner’s requests as filed in 2015 did not meet previously established rules for consideration as a class action lawsuit.
Class Action Lawsuits Versus Private Lawsuits
A private lawsuit is a completely different thing compared to a class action suit. Private lawsuits must prove harm was done to the individual, but a class action suit alleges harm against a group of people and carries different requirements.
In Monk Vs. Wilkie, the suit basically alleged that harm was done to all veterans required to wait longer times for decisions about VA compensation claims.
But a class of veterans with similar medical issues filing suit against the VA as a specific class of people (with medical conditions in common) might have a better chance at succeeding in a class action proceeding at showing how certain delays specifically affect their condition, its treatment, effective management of the condition(s), etc.
Monk Vs. Wilkie Revisited
Appeals to the 2015 ruling brought Monk Vs. Wilkie back to court – this time in the U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled in 2017 that the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims does have the authority to “certify a class action”.
In 2018, the Court granted the petitioner’s “Amended Motion for Leave to File an Amended Petition for Extraordinary Equitable and Collective Relief and Join Additional Petitioners”(Amended Petition).
This petition expanded the class of petitioners by amending the requirement to be included in the class of people bringing suit against the VA. Prior to the amended motion, the class was limited to “veterans facing medical or financial hardship” which apparently restricted it in ways that resulted in the court ruling against the plaintiffs.
What The Court’s Decision In Monk Vs. Wilkie Implies
In the end Monk Vs. Wilkie was ultimately decided in favor of the VA, but left the door open for future class action lawsuits that could be permitted to move forward where deemed appropriate. One reason for this, according to a published report by Yale Law School, is that the majority ruling in this portion of the case involved a decision, “that the court would follow the same rules for class actions that U.S. federal district courts use.”
In other words, veterans will not have to “wait for new rules to be developed,” meaning veterans already have the necessary guidelines for bringing class actions against the VA at any time.
In April 2018, the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) won a legal victory against the VA on behalf of an Army veteran with knee injuries (more on that case below); the result of both Monk Vs. Wilkie and the NVLSP cases includes setting legal precedent that could be used to argue in favor of future plaintiffs bringing suit against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
How Legal Action Can Change The VA System
Why do people seek redress with the VA through private lawsuits or class action suits? Sometimes it is to address a specific complaint and other times it is to use a specific complaint to point out a larger problem in the system.
This is true of the court case from April 2018 brought by the National Veterans Legal Services Program on behalf of an Army veteran who received service-connected knee injuries which were noted in the military member’s medical records without a specific cause of the problem listed. This led to a denial of VA compensation claims when the service member left the military.
The Board of Veterans Appeals justified denial of the claim based on a 1999 Veterans Court decision that included the statement that pain alone “is not a disability for the purpose of VA disability compensation.”
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned that precedent which had been used to deny thousands of VA claims by requiring a medical diagnosis “specifically related” to the veteran’s pain. The U.S. Court of Appeals decision is a major one for those unable to hold a job due to service-connected medical problems but are not approved for VA compensation due to the old precedent.
Some eleven thousand VA claims were denied on the basis of the old precedent, but as some have pointed out, those are only the claims that actually went forward. We have no idea how many other claims may have been brought if not for word of what happened to any of the other eleven thousand cases.
If you were previously rejected for benefits under the old precedent, whether or not you think that precedent played a role in how the VA handled your claim, you should reapply for benefits once more under the new legal precedent set by Monk Vs. Wilkie.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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