Federal Appeals Court Finds VA Failed To Provide Timely Care And Benefits To Veterans

In a scathing 104-page opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that “the VA’s failure to provide adequate procedures for veterans facing … delays in the delivery of mental health care violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment [of the Constitution].” Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki, _______ F.3d. ______ , 2011 U.S. App. Lexis 9542 (9th Cir. 2011)

Plaintiffs, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth (“Veterans”), filed a complaint in the federal district court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of all veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) to remedy the lengthy delays in (1) the provision of mental health care and (2) the adjudication of service-connected death and disability compensation claims by the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”). Plaintiffs asked the Court to decide whether the delays and the VA’s lack of procedures to remedy the delays violated the veterans’ due process rights to receive the care and benefits they are guaranteed by statute.

The VA filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court denied. Plaintiffs then moved for a preliminary injunction on their mental health care claims. The district court deferred ruling on the motion for a preliminary injunction and merged the hearing with a trial on the merits. After a seven-day bench trial, the court addressed both Veterans’s mental health care claims and their compensation adjudication claims. Although the district court concluded that Veterans had standing to bring suit on behalf of their members, the court nonetheless denied each of Veterans’s claims, concluding that the remedies sought by Veterans were beyond its power “and would call for a complete overhaul of the VA system, something clearly outside of this Court’s jurisdiction.” The district court granted judgment in favor of the VA. Plaintiffs appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Concerning the delays in the VA’s provision of mental health care, the Ninth Circuit held that the Veterans’s constitutional right to due process was violated. The appellate court went on to reverse the district court’s ruling in that respect, and remand the case for further proceedings. The court found that as of April 2008 at least 85,450 veterans were languishing on waiting lists for mental health care from the VA, and that veterans suffered a much higher suicide rate than found in the general population. On an average day, the court found that 18 veterans take their own lives, and an additional 1,000 veterans attempt suicide each month. As a result, the court concluded as follows:

We have determined that veterans have a towering interest in avoiding delays in their mental health care, the risk of erroneous deprivation is high given the absence of review procedures, the value of additional procedural safeguards would be great, and the government’s interest does not weigh against additional protections. The current delays therefore constitute a deprivation of Veterans’s mental health care without due process, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

With regard to the delays in the VA’s claims adjudication system, particularly in the claims appeals process, the court found that Veterans’s benefits are a protected property interest under the Fifth Amendment because they are statutorily mandated and nondiscretionary in nature. Having found stark and sobering evidence of inexplicable delays in the benefits adjudication process, the court stated that the due process rights of veterans were violated by the absence of procedures designed to reduce delays in claim appeals. The appeals court remanded the case to the district court with the instruction that, unless the parties resolved this dispute, an order be entered by the court consistent with the opinion.

The Ninth Circuit Court’s opinion is annexed here – Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki

The opinion of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California is annexed here – Federal District Court Opinion – Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki

The Complaint filed in the case is annexed here – Complaint in Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki

Website of the plaintiff, Veterans for Common Sense: http://veteransforcommonsense.org/index.php/veterans-category-articles/2341-vcs