Justices Reject Framework in Veterans’ Benefit Cases

     (CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the Federal Circuit’s framework for reviewing claims that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs failed to properly notify veterans about what information or evidence they needed to substantiate a benefits claim. The 6-3 majority called the “harmless-error” framework “too complex and rigid.”

     The VA is legally required to notify a veteran seeking disability benefits of three things: 1) what further information is needed to substantiate the claim, 2) what portions of that information the VA will obtain, and 3) what portions the veteran must obtain.
     When a veteran alleges improper notification, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims requires the veteran to explain how the notice was defective. The reviewing judge then decides what type of error the VA committed and whether it harmed the veteran. For example, failures to notify veterans of what information they need are typically more harmful than failures to specify who will obtain which portions of the information.
     The Federal Circuit, which reviews Veterans Court decisions, came up with a system for determining whether a notice error is harmful. It required the Veterans Court to assume that the error is prejudicial unless the VA can demonstrate that the veteran knew about the requirements or that the veteran was not entitled to the benefits, anyway.
     The federal appeals court used this framework in allowing two veterans to pursue benefits based on alleged notification errors.
     The framework’s presumptions “impose unreasonable evidentiary burdens upon the VA, and it is too likely too often to require the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to treat as harmful errors that in fact are harmless,” Justice Breyer wrote.
     The law already requires the Veterans Court to “take due account of the rule of prejudicial error,” the majority noted.
     Justice Souter dissented, saying the burden of proof should remain on the government, as the Federal Circuit prescribed, and not on the veteran. Justices Stevens and Ginsburg joined the dissenting opinion.

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