LAF’s Veterans’ Rights Task Force spends a lot of time corresponding with the Veterans Administration (VA) to resolve veteran benefit issues. Since benefits are based on military service and discharge, the first step in the process is getting the VA to produce a client’s medical and personnel records. Even with LAF attorneys’ legal expertise in a veteran’s corner, that can be an arduous task. But LAF attorney Cate Schur, recently won a victory that will make it easier to hold the VA accountable and get veterans what they’re owed faster.
Rebecca is a veteran of the Coast Guard who receives what’s known as “service-related” disability benefits from the VA—that is, the injuries that prevent her from working are a direct result of performing her duties in the Coast Guard. She doesn’t receive those payments directly, they’re paid instead to a fiduciary who is authorized to make financial decisions on her behalf.
Rebecca came to LAF because she wasn’t satisfied with how her fiduciary was performing. He failed to pay bills on time, including her rent, which put her at risk of being evicted from her home. Rebecca wanted to choose a new representative, but when she tried to request one herself, she got little more than the administrative run-around. So she asked for help.
LAF Staff attorney Cate Schur took Rebecca’s case and began by requesting relevant documents related to Rebecca’s benefits. To make a complex legal story short, there are two laws that both entitle Rebecca or her attorney this information, the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Privacy Act doesn’t contain deadlines for government agencies like the VA to respond to requests, but FOIA requires responses in 20 days. So when Cate requested Rebecca’s file, she included a letter asserting Rebecca’s rights under both laws as a means of encouraging the VA to respond faster. Administrators at the VA responded with, as Cate puts it, “a rather patronizing letter” stating they would only follow the Privacy Act in reference to the request. In other words, they would provide the documents whenever they got around to it.
Unfortunately, these kinds of delays are all too common for military veterans making requests of the VA. So Cate took steps that would not only resolve this issue for Rebecca, but also provide a method of holding the VA to account in future cases. She filed a lawsuit on behalf of both Rebecca and LAF itself, since ignoring deadlines under FOIA encumbers not just LAF’s clients, but the attorneys tasked with helping them as well. “This is a policy that will continue to affect us, even if they do just give us the file,” says Cate.
The VA did, in fact, surrender Rebecca’s file, and she managed to find a new fiduciary who is living up to her responsibilities. But Cate’s fight to improve this process for all veterans is still ongoing. LAF survived a motion by the VA to dismiss the suit, and is now preparing to settle the suit. Cate is confident that she and her colleagues will win favorable terms in the settlement conference.
“All we’re asking for is for them to follow the law,” Cate points out. “Right now it takes so much time just to evaluate these cases. I think we’ll be able to give veterans answers, and to solve problems for them much faster.”