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Court victory aids veterans in benefit denials

New Haven Register - 4/27/2017

April 27--NEW HAVEN -- The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at the Yale Law School has won a major victory that allows a class-action challenge to appeals of benefit denials by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has for decades denied individual veterans the ability to speak on behalf of others similarly situated, claiming it did not have the authority to do so.

Conley Monk, a New Haven Vietnam War veteran, had been waiting more than a year for a ruling on a denial of beneifts by the VA when he asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to order the VA to process his appeal, as well as other veterans who were facing the same delays.

They denied his request.

More than 427,000 veterans face average delays of three years waiting for a ruling from CAVC, according to the Government Accountability Office, while some 81,000 veterans face an average delay of five years.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Wednesday ruled that the "Veterans Court has the authority to certify a class for a class action and to maintain similar aggregate resolution procedures."

The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court to determine whather a class action is suitable in Monk's case.

CAVC is a court, established under Article 1 of the Constitution, and is subject matter specific.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is the equivalent of the federal Courts of Appeals, set up under Article 3, which hears appeals of federal district court ruings.

"In the military, we fight as a unit. Now, at long last, the court has recognized that veterans also may fight together," Monk said in a statement.

The Federal Circuit found that class actions by the CAVS would "promote efficiency, consistency, and fairness in its decision."

It also said a class-action ruling would allow the court to "serve as a lawgiver and error corrector simultaneously, while also reducing the delays associated with individual appeals."

"For years, veterans were prevented from bringing claims on behalf of themselves and their fellow veterans," John Giammatteo said in a statement. "Today, the Federal Circuit corrected this critical oversight and affirmed that veterans should be able to join together and claim the benefits to which they are entitled through their service."

Giammatteo is a law student intern at the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which represents Monk.

After decades of being denied benefits, as well as an upgrade of his discharge status, Monk in May 2015 was given an honorable discharge and was later found to be eligible for full disability benefits for his service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes.

Monk hoped that the court finding helps veterans get timely rulings on their benefit denials.

The law school's clinic has shepherded several suits for veterans who have received less-than-honorable discharges because of behavior associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. These veterans subsequenty did not qualify for the mental health benefits they needed to address those injuries.

At the time of Monk's injuries, PTSD had not yet been recognized as a medical condition.

While he now receives benefits himself, Monk continues to be an advocate for other veterans.

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(c)2017 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

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