Lawsuit Alleging Racial Bias in VA Benefits Decisions Allowed to Move Forward by Federal Judge

Seal affixed to the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building.
This June 21, 2013, file photo, shows the seal affixed to the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

A lawsuit alleging decades of racial discrimination in the Department of Veterans Affairs' disability benefits system is moving forward after a federal judge rejected the government's effort to have the case dismissed.

"The risk of harm that veterans would be denied benefits in a racially [discriminatory] manner was reasonably foreseeable to the VA," Judge Stefan Underhill of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut wrote in a Friday opinion denying the government's motion to dismiss. "The VA should have known as early as the 1970s that Black veterans were at a greater risk of benefits denials than white veterans."

The ruling is a rare instance of a lawsuit seeking to redress historic discrimination surviving a motion to dismiss, according to a Monday news release from lawyers for the plaintiff, and could lead to a court decision on whether systemic racism has affected benefits decisions for Black veterans as far back as World War II.

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The lawsuit at issue was filed in November 2022 by Conley Monk Jr., a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marine Corps and alleges that the VA spent decades improperly denying his claims for disability, housing and education benefits before the department reversed course in December 2020.

Prior to filing the lawsuit, Monk obtained data through a Freedom of Information Act request that showed nearly 30% of disability claims filed by Black veterans were denied from 2001 to 2020 compared to a 24.2% rejection rate for claims filed by white veterans, according to the suit.

While the data in the lawsuit dates back only to 2001, the suit alleges that VA records will "confirm racial disparities in the administration of VA benefits programs since World War II and a disparate impact on Black veterans, of which VA leaders knew or should have known and negligently failed to redress."

The VA has acknowledged that its internal data indicates there have been racial disparities in benefits decisions. Specifically, the VA said earlier this year that a review of data from 2017 and 2023 showed that, while Black veterans had higher rates of claims approvals than white veterans in the first year after leaving the military, the approval rate was lower for Black veterans after the first year.

To address that, the VA announced an "Equity Action Plan" in February that focuses on educating transitioning service members about VA benefits.

Despite acknowledging racial disparities, the federal government sought to have Monk's case dismissed on procedural grounds, arguing that the court doesn't have jurisdiction over VA benefits decisions.

"The VA is committed to eliminating barriers so that all veterans are treated fairly and equally," lawyers from the Justice Department wrote in their motion to dismiss the lawsuit. "But this case does not provide an appropriate vehicle to address such issues."

Underhill, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton, rejected the government's argument and found that Monk's claim of "systematic benefits obstruction for Black veterans" can be reviewed by the court.

In a news release Monday, Monk's lawyers at the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic heralded what they described as a "landmark" decision not to dismiss the case.

"It has been some 50 years of waiting for some sort of justice and resolution for how the VA system treats Black veterans," Monk said in a statement included in the news release. "This decision not only excites and inspires me, but also brings hope to other veterans who have suffered."

Related: Former Marine Sues VA, Alleging 'Years' of Discrimination Against Black Vets Seeking Benefits

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