Military

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs faces its first class-action lawsuit

October 2, 2020

The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing its first class-action since it became a cabinet-level department in 1989 for failing to process benefit appeals claims in quick;y enough. Find out why this is the first class-action in thirty years.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has never had to face a class-action lawsuit since it became a cabinet-level department in 1989. That is, until last year when a group of veterans filed a lawsuit against the VA for having to wait inexcusably long periods for their disability benefits appeals claims to be processed and certified. The lawsuit, like all cases filed against the VA, is heard in the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (USAVC).

This particular case–Godsey v. Wilkie–sought relief for veterans facing long waits for the department to certify their disability benefits appeals claims. The case was originally filed in 2017 on behalf of four veterans facing lengthy delays, but lawyers argued it should be broadened to include an entire class of individuals waiting for their benefits. During oral arguments, VA officials confirmed that over 2,500 veterans had been waiting for certification on their appeals claims for more than two years.

After a 2-1 decision by the court, the case was approved but modified the class members to include only veterans that have been waiting for their benefit appeal claim certification for more than 18 months. The judges wrote “We are not content to wait for the Secretary [of the VA] to remedy these unreasonable delays on his own…The Secretary has had many years to act and initiate pre-certification review of class members' cases, and he has failed to do so… Simply put: the time has come for judicial intervention.” Following the decision, Bart Stichman, executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, noted that the court’s order is “a landmark moment, and will help ensure that our veterans and their families have more access to the justice they deserve.”[1]  

Why is this the first time since 1989 that a class action has been brought against the VA?  

To understand why this is the first of its kind, a similar lawsuit filed against the VA back in 2015 that sought relief for those who were waiting too long for a decision on their appeals must be examined.

The case—Monk v. Wilkie—is important because the petition to the court was on behalf of the plaintiff, Conley F. Monk, as well as “similarly situated persons facing financial and medical hardships.”[2] Because the petition included these additional plaintiffs, the case was dismissed stating the court “does not have the authority to preside over class action claims of this nature.” The case was appealed in 2017 to the U.S. Court of Appeals (Court of Appeals) which ruled that the USAVC does indeed have the authority to “certify a class action.”

While the Monk v. Wilkie case was ultimately decided in favor of the VA, the language used by the Court of Appeals left the door open for future class actions against the VA through the USAVC. While the USAVC had previously claimed they did not have the authority or ability to handle class actions, the Court of Appeals found that the VA should “follow the same rules for class actions that U.S. federal district courts use.”[3]

As a result of this ruling, Godsey v. Wilkie was heard by the USAVC as a class action. While many may trivialize this legal milestone, we believe our veterans must have all the legal processes available to them. We celebrate this historic class action as a victory for both the veterans whose appeal claims were wrongfully withheld as well as future veterans who now have the groundwork laid to file a class action against the VA, if necessary.  

References:

[1] https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2019/06/17/court-allows-a-class-action-lawsuit-against-va-for-the-first-time/

[2] https://militarybenefits.info/claims-lawsuits-against-va/

[3] Ibid.

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