Veterans Clinic Sues Air Force in Proposed Nationwide Class Action

Air Force uniform

Martin Johnson and Jane Doe, U.S. Air Force veterans, filed a federal class action lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force on September 13, 2021 on behalf of thousands of Air Force veterans with mental health conditions or experiences of military sexual trauma who were separated less than Honorably from the military.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School and Jenner & Block, LLP.

The complaint alleges that the military is discriminating against these veterans with disabilities, and that their subsequent discharge upgrade applications are reviewed under inadequate standards.

The U.S. military separates thousands of servicemembers with less-than-Honorable discharges every year. According to the clinic, such “bad paper” discharges are stigmatizing and can cut off access to veterans’ benefits.

After World War II, Congress established the Discharge Review Boards to allow veterans who have been discharged inequitably from their service to seek relief. According to the complaint, over the past decade, military leadership and Congress have grown to better understand the impact mental health and sexual violence can have on conduct, and agreed to give “liberal consideration” to veterans petitioning for discharge relief on the basis of all mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, or experiences of military sexual trauma. Despite this guidance, the Air Force Discharge Review Board has refused to grant applications from these veterans the “liberal consideration” plaintiffs contend they are lawfully owed.

“The Secretary of Defense and Congress have clearly ordered the Air Force to provide liberal consideration to veterans with mental health conditions, traumatic brain injuries, or experiences with military sexual trauma,” said Shariful Khan ’22, a law student intern in the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “The liberal consideration requirement recognizes that these conditions and experiences can cause the very misconduct that leads to less-than-Honorable discharges in the first place. But too often, the Air Force Discharge Review Board dismisses veterans’ pleas with nothing more than boilerplate language in form rejection letters. This behavior is unjust, embarrassing, and against the law.”

“I was a dedicated airman for years, but the Air Force still refuses to honor my service to this country because of minor misconduct related to my disability,” said plaintiff Martin Johnson, an Air Force veteran who was deployed to Iraq. “Veterans like myself who have been discharged less-than-Honorably have a harder time finding employment, getting into schools, and lose valuable benefits because of this status. This lawsuit demands that the Air Force evaluate our discharge upgrade applications with ‘liberal consideration’ actually in mind.”

“It is imperative that a lawsuit be filed against the Air Force to show the unjust practices that are happening within the ranks,” said Garry Monk, an Air Force veteran and Executive Director of the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, which was a plaintiff in a similar suit on behalf of sailors and Marines. “The lawsuit may be the catalyst for many needed corrective actions addressing the Air Force’s unfair and blatant disregard for veterans with mental health conditions and military sexual trauma. I personally experienced some of these injustices and the impactful disparities that exist within this branch.”

The current case represents the latest in a series of actions brought by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic against other branches of the military on behalf of veterans who unfairly received less-than-Honorable discharges. A federal court granted final approval of a settlement reached in a nationwide class action lawsuit against the U.S. Army on April 26, 2021. The clinic is also litigating a separate class action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan Navy and Marine Corps veterans who received less-than-Honorable discharges.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal ’73 D-CT said, “Thousands of veterans have been victimized — again and again — by undiagnosed PTSD or sexual assault, resulting in an unfair less than honorable discharge, then resulting in denial of treatment for that medical condition and others, and denial of jobs, education benefits and respect for their service. They have been denied repeatedly legal rights to upgrade petitions. The law is clear: petitions for upgrades of bad paper discharges must be reviewed promptly and fairly. Now this legal action will compel the Air Force to do right by the countless veterans who served and sacrificed ably and selflessly. Other service branches should do the same.”

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic, part of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School, represents veterans and veterans’ organizations in national litigation and regulatory and legislative reform efforts.