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Monday, April 6, 2015

Veterans Clinic Files Nation-Wide Class Action, Challenging Delays in VA Benefits Processing

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School filed a lawsuit Monday on behalf of a Marine Corps veteran and thousands of other veterans seeking to compel the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs to decide initial disability compensation appeals that have been pending more than one year. The lawsuit specifically involves cases in which veterans are facing a medical or financial hardship.

Marine Corps veteran, Conley Monk, Jr., is named a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC). Mr. Monk, students from the Veterans Clinic, and Senator Richard Blumenthal ’79 held a press conference on Monday to announce the lawsuit and detail how these long delays can have harmful impacts on the lives of many veterans around the country.

Today, hundreds of thousands of veterans await a decision from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) on their applications for disability benefits arising from service-connected injuries, according to the lawsuit. Delays are endemic in the VA system, but according to VA’s statistics, the greatest delays of all involve initial administrative appeals, which can take years for VA to adjudicate. For elderly veterans, or veterans struggling with serious medical or financial problems, the years spent waiting for the VA to process their initial appeals impose enormous hardship, students from the clinic said.

“It’s frustrating to be stuck in limbo. It has been nearly two years since I began my initial appeal by filing a Notice of Disagreement and electing a Decision Review Officer hearing in July 2013, and the VA has still not decided my case,” said Conley Monk, the Vietnam combat veteran who is filing the lawsuit. “While waiting on the VA, my house burned down, and I’ve had significant medical problems, including a botched VA surgery. It’s been hard to make ends meet to get treated for my diabetes and PTSD.”

“I strongly support action to reform this broken appeals system because justice delayed for these veterans is justice denied, unconscionably and unacceptably,” explained Senator Blumenthal (D-CT), ranking member on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “I hear from hundreds of veterans whose benefit appeals have languished for months, even years. The VA needs to improve and enhance its processing of appeals from denial of critical benefit applications. I support more resources and additional staff who will expedite these benefit applications and appeals.”

“Mr. Monk brings this suit for himself and thousands of other veterans pursuing an initial appeal who do not have the resources to file a federal lawsuit to compel the VA to act,” said Julia Shu ’16, a law student intern in the Clinic. “The only legal option for a veteran whose initial appeal languishes in the VA system is expensive and time-consuming. Each veteran must retain legal counsel and apply individually to CAVC to request a court order that the VA decide his or her case. System-wide delays persist when the CAVC does not resolve an issue for all affected veterans in one decision.”

“This lawsuit is novel because judges of the Court have repeatedly recognized their power to adjudicate a class action-type case, but in the history of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, they have yet to do so,” said Will Hudson ’17, also a law student intern. “This is an appropriate case to recognize the first collective action and to bring relief to these veterans who should not be expected to wait any longer.”

The plaintiffs in this case are represented by law student interns William Hudson and Julia Shu, and supervising attorney Michael Wishnie of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School. The clinic, founded in the fall of 2010, represents individual veterans and veterans’ organizations on a range of matters. It is one of a small number of clinics in the country dedicated solely to serving veterans and their organizations.