Federal Judge Allows Lawsuit Against Department of Veterans Affairs for Racial Discrimination in Benefits to Proceed

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal district court judge has ruled that a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) alleging racial discrimination in disability benefits can proceed. The suit claims that the VA systematically rejected applications for benefits from Black veterans at a higher rate than their white counterparts, a practice that has allegedly persisted since World War II.

The case was brought by Vietnam veteran Conley Monk Jr. of Connecticut on behalf of himself and his late father, a World War II veteran. The lawsuit asserts that the VA engaged in “systematic benefits obstruction” that resulted in racial discrimination against Black veterans. The judge’s ruling denied the VA’s argument that it is immune from the lawsuit, allowing the case to move forward.

Monk, now 74 years old, served as a Marine Corps private in Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide linked to various health issues. He developed diabetes and post-traumatic stress disorder related to his military service. Despite his health conditions, Monk’s benefits claims were repeatedly denied by the VA for over 40 years.

The lawsuit, filed in 2022, seeks to represent all Black veterans who have applied for benefits since January 1, 1945. It alleges that the VA should have been aware of the racial disparities in benefits administration and is liable for the resulting emotional, psychological, and reputational harm caused to Black veterans.

VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes acknowledged the need to address racial disparities in approval rates but declined to comment further on the case due to ongoing litigation. The Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale Law School, representing the plaintiffs, expressed satisfaction with the judge’s ruling, stating that attention to racial disparities within the VA is long overdue.

Previous evidence and findings support the claims made in the lawsuit. A statistical analysis of benefits records from 2001-2020 showed that Black veterans were 21.9% more likely to have their disability claims denied compared to white veterans. Additionally, internal studies conducted by the VA in 2017 and notifications from the VA’s Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans suggested the existence of racial discrimination within the benefits system.

The lawsuit is brought under the federal Tort Claims Act, which allows claims against the U.S. government for injury or loss caused by government employees’ negligence or wrongful acts. Monk’s claims include negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision by the VA.

The judge emphasized that Monk’s claims reflect a larger pattern of “systematic benefits obstruction for Black veterans” and that the harm caused by racial discrimination in the benefits system was reasonably foreseeable to the VA. The lawsuit seeks damages for the emotional distress suffered by Monk and other Black veterans, rather than specific benefits denied.

The ruling in Monk’s case highlights the need for accountability and reform within the VA to address racial disparities and ensure equitable treatment for all veterans. The lawsuit serves as a recognition of the injustices faced by Black veterans and aims to bring long-overdue justice to those affected.