In “Historic” Decision, Veterans Court Will Allow Class Actions

In a decision Chief Judge Robert Davis described as “seismic,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, acting en banc, yesterday issued an opinion unanimously holding that veterans may bring class actions against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Read the decision.

A majority of the eight-judge court additionally decided that the court would follow the same rules for class actions that U.S. federal district courts use. This means veterans will not have to wait for new rules to be developed; they have guidelines for bringing class actions against the VA immediately. The majority also ruled that the Veterans Court can engage in limited fact-finding in class actions. This is unusual for appellate courts and is a critical element in adjudicating a class action. The court divided 4-4 as to whether the particular class proposed in this case, Monk v. Wilkie, which involved a challenge to extraordinary delays in VA processing of appeals, met these newly adopted class standards.

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School represented Conley Monk, Jr., a Vietnam veteran from New Haven, Connecticut.

“I want to emphasize the significance of the Court’s decision and the historic nature of this case,” wrote Chief Judge Robert Davis in a concurring opinion. “[T]he Court holds that it will, in appropriate cases, entertain class actions. This holding is a seismic shift in our precedent, departing from nearly 30 years of this Court’s case law. . . . [T]his is a watershed decision [that] will shape our jurisprudence for years to come and, I hope, bring about positive change for our Nation’s veterans and ensure that justice is done more efficiently and timely.”

“In appropriate cases, aggregate resolution of issues will allow the Court to address systemic problems in the VA system and more fully protect the rights of the men and women who served our Nation,” wrote Judge Michael Allen in an opinion joined by two other judges, concurring in part and dissenting in part. Judge Allen’s opinion described the decision in Monk as “groundbreaking” and one whose “import . . . cannot be overstated.”

The case was filed by Monk, who sought to challenge the years-long delays in VA resolution of disability benefits appeals. Mr. Monk filed the case on behalf of himself and all other veterans who had waited more than one year for a decision by the Board of Veterans Appeals. “In the Marine Corps, I was taught to fight as part of a unit,” said Mr. Monk. “I’m pleased the court will no longer require that each veteran fight for justice alone.”

“We are gratified that the Veterans Court has adopted the class action device, which will allow our nation’s veterans to unite in fighting for prompt answers to their disability benefits claims,” said Catherine McCarthy, a law student intern in the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “The VA’s delays are intolerable, and we hope the court will exercise its class action authority to hold the agency to account.”

“We applaud the Veterans Court’s landmark decision, which will benefit the hundreds of thousands of people who served their nation and are currently navigating their claims for disability benefits through the Veterans Administration’s backlogged administrative system,” said litigation partner Lynn Neuner ’92 of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, co-counsel for Mr. Monk and the class petitioners.