April 26, 2017–(Washington, DC)–In the summer of 2016, Lieff Cabraser filed an amicus brief on behalf of Administrative Law Professors and Complex Litigation Law Professors in Monk v. Shulkin in the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in support of Conley F. Monk, Jr.’s petition to certify a class action over the claims of thousands of veterans whose benefits claims had been delayed or denied. Citing in part that amicus brief, on April 26, 2017, the Court issued a precedential opinion holding, for the first time, that the Veterans Courts have authority to certify classes in the absence of an express Rule 23 or similar device to promote efficiency and fairness.
Lieff Cabraser partner Jason Lichtman commented, “We were privileged to represent these distinguished professors, particularly Michael Sant’Ambrogio and Adam S. Zimmerman, whose scholarship was the basis for the key arguments in the amicus brief. This opinion affirms the important role that class actions play in providing justice to those who would otherwise be denied access the courts. It is particularly rewarding to be able to secure this relief for those who have sacrificed so much for our country.”
This case involved an individual Vietnam veteran who suffered from service-connected illnesses and sought to certify a class of those like him who had been denied disability benefits. The Veterans Courts through which such litigation must proceed held that they lacked authority to certify a class.
The Federal Circuit court reversed the Veterans Court decision, finding that such a court does indeed have the authority “to certify a class for a class action and to maintain similar aggregate resolution procedures,” and remanded the case for further proceedings in the lower court consistent with that finding.
Background on the Litigation
Mr. Monk served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. In 2012, he filed a disability benefits claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Connecticut alleging service-related post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes, hypertension, and strokes, which claim was denied in 2013.
Mr. Monk challenged this decision, and as part of his appeal as his claim dragged on without a timely decision he requested that the Veterans Court certify a class under a class action or similar aggregate resolution procedure of all veterans who had applied for VA benefits, filed a timely Notice of Disagreement (an appeal) upon the denial of those benefits, and had not received a decision within 12 months despite demonstrating medical or financial hardship. Mr. Monk proposed that class members include “veterans in all stages of the VA appeals process that otherwise met these requirements, from those awaiting a Statement of the Case to those awaiting Board adjudication.”
Mr. Monk’s action in seeking class treatment was based on further allegations that the cases of members of the proposed class shared questions of law and fact, including whether the VA delays in rendering disability benefits claim decisions constituted a violation of the veterans’ due process rights. The Veterans Court rejected the request for class treatment, and Mr. Monk appealed to the Federal Circuit Court.
In reaching its decision finding that class treatment was appropriate, the Circuit Court acknowledged that while the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a) applied to the case (and not Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, the rule generally governing the implementation of the class action mechanism), the aggregation of claims under the All Writs Act was appropriate and bore ample precedent. Among other support, the Court cited Second Circuit authority noting that although Rule 23 did not apply, the standards for determining whether a Rule 23 class action was appropriate provided support for maintaining a class action: “We see no principled reason why the Veterans Court cannot rely on the All Writs Act to aggregate claims….” The Court also cited numerous other examples of statutory and case authority in support of the finding that the Veterans Court has the authority to aggregate claims for class action treatment.
The Court cited the law professor brief and adopted its argument that class actions promote “efficiency, consistency, and fairness, and improving access to legal and expert assistance by parties with limited resources,” and further noted that class adjudications may foster the consistent adjudication of cases by the Veterans Court by increasing its prospects for precedential opinions, only a small number of which are typically issued each year.
You can read a copy of the Federal Circuit Court’s opinion in Monk v. Shulkin, or read a copy of the amicus brief on behalf of Administrative Law Professors and Complex Litigation Law Professors.
Jason L. Lichtman
Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP
275 Battery Street, Suite 2900
San Francisco, CA 94111