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Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Veterans Groups Sue VA for Data on Bias, Sexism
Protect Our Defenders and the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center filed suit in U.S. District Court on March 7, 2018, to compel the Department of Veterans Affairs to release data on potentially widespread problems of discrimination and bias against veterans applying for disability benefits related to military sexual trauma. The suit comes in the wake of a 2015 revelation that over the course of eight years, senior Veterans Law Judges (VLJs) at the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) exchanged virulently homophobic, racist, and sexist messages over government email and in an online, self-described, “Forum of Hate.” As a result, advocates fear that an unchecked culture of bias has compromised the BVA’s ability to fairly adjudicate the claims of male survivors of sexual assault.
The organizations are being represented by the Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale Law School.
“Men who are sexually assaulted while serving are often disbelieved because of the pernicious myth that ‘men don’t get raped,’” said Col. Don Christensen (ret.), the former Chief Prosecutor of the United States Air Force and President of Protect Our Defenders. “Veterans who were assaulted deserve to know whether they will be treated fairly if they need to file a claim for PTSD or another related condition. The VA has not shown that it has fully eradicated the culture of bias that allowed its VLJs to openly promote hate for years. Its reluctance to provide a remedy for veterans whose claims were handled by bigoted VLJs inspires no confidence that it will take evidence of discrimination seriously.”
Margaret Middleton, Executive Director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, explained, “As an advocate, I need to be able to challenge decisions that are tainted by bias due to my clients’ gender. Many of my clients have struggled to disclose that an experience of sexual assault has contributed to a disabling condition. They need to believe that the BVA’s adjudicatory system—which they entrust with information about what may be the most painful experience of their lives—is going to review their claim impartially. My clients deserve nothing short of full transparency from the BVA on this important question.”
The lawsuit asks the court to compel the VA to conduct a reasonable search and immediately produce wrongfully withheld records and data, as required by the Freedom of Information Act.
“Survivors of military sexual trauma, and the American public at large, deserve to know whether a culture of bias pervades decision-making at the BVA,” said Kathryn Pogin ’20, a student intern with the Veterans Legal Service Clinic. “We intend to vindicate our clients’ FOIA rights to ensure that they receive this data, which they are entitled to by statute.”
Protect Our Defenders is the only national organization solely dedicated to ending the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military and to combating a culture of pervasive misogyny, sexual harassment, and retribution against victims. It seeks to honor, support, and give voice to survivors, and seeks reform to ensure all survivors and service members are provided a safe, respectful work environment and have access to a fair, impartially administered system of justice.
Connecticut Veterans Legal Center’s mission is to help veterans who have experienced homelessness and mental illnesses overcome legal barriers to housing, healthcare, and income. As the first VA medical-legal partnership in the country, CVLC co-locates with VA medical centers to provide legal services to its clients.
The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School represents Connecticut veterans in litigation before administrative agencies and courts, on benefits, discharge upgrade, immigration, and pardon matters. In addition, students represent local and national organizations in non-litigation matters relating to the legal needs of veterans, including regulatory and legislative reform efforts, media advocacy, strategic planning, and other matters.