Monday, May 7, 2012

Ninth Circuit Rejects Veterans' Claims

The en banc Ninth Circuit today rejected veterans groups' claims against the VA over delays in the provision of mental health care and the adjudication of service-connected disability compensation claims.  The court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction over the groups' mental health care claims and disability benefits claims, and that while it had jurisdiction over the groups' due process challenges to regional office procedures, those challenges failed on the merits.

The ruling is based on a broad reading of the statutory restriction on federal court involvement in cases related to veterans benefits outside the Veterans Court and the Federal Circuit; it means that veterans and veteran groups won't be able to get judicial relief for anything related to veterans benefits in the Ninth Circuit.  While they can still file claims related to individual benefits decisions in the Veterans Court and the Federal Circuit (an appeal of a denial of benefits at the VA, e.g., or even an individual mandamus claim to get the VA moving), they apparently have no judicial remedy for claims like this, based on systemic delay.

The case, Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki, arises out of a complaint by two veterans groups that the VA delayed the provision of mental health care and the adjudication of service-connected disability claims of veterans.  The court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction, because Congress "expressly disqualified us from hearing cases related to VA benefits in Section 511(a), and . . . Congress has conferred exclusive jurisdiction over such claims to the Veterans Court and the Federal Circuit." 

Section 511(a) says that the VA

shall decide all questions of law and fact necessary to a decision by the Secretary under a law that affects the provision of benefits by the Secretary to veterans.

38 U.S.C. Sec. 511(a).  The court ruled that the groups' mental health care claims and disability benefits claims would require it to delve into "the circumstances of individual veterans and their requests for treatment, and determining whether the VA handled those request properly," thus intruding into an area that Congress reserved, under Section 511(a), to the VA.  Op. at 4850.  The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that they challenged only average delays, not individual delays, and that the court could rule without violating Section 511(a).  The court said that this was a distinction without a difference.

In contrast, the court ruled that it possessed jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' challenges to VA regional office procedures, but, applying Mathews v. Eldridge, it rejected those challenges on the merits, emphasizing Congress's creation of a non-adversarial system of benefits administration.

Judge Schroeder dissented, arguing that the court erred in rejecting jurisdiction on the first two claims, writing that "the claims of systemic delay do not, in my view, require any review of the VA's actual benefits decisions."  Op. at 4868.

SDS

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