Supreme Court: VA need not reconsider benefits decisions, even after misinterpreting law

The decision raises questions about the recourses individuals have when seeking to challenge potentially improper actions by federal personnel.

The decision raises questions about the recourses individuals have when seeking to challenge potentially improper actions by federal personnel. Richard Sharrocks / Getty Images

Opponents call it "inexcusable" to deny a veteran a new hearing after VA admitted it made a mistake.

The Veterans Affairs Department does not have to conduct a new hearing to determine whether a former Marine Corps member deserves disability benefits even after the agency admitted it was relying on a faulty interpretation of the law when it first denied the man’s claim, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday. 

For the second time in as many weeks, the court raised questions about the recourses individuals have when seeking to challenge potentially improper actions by federal personnel. Federal statute allows veterans to seek reconsideration of a benefits denial at any time when the rejection resulted from a “clear and unmistakable error.” Such errors occur under a “narrow” and “limited” set of circumstances, the court said in a 6-3 decision in George v. McDonough, and do not include when decisions were made under regulations that were subsequently changed to bring them into compliance with existing law. 

Kevin George joined the Marine Corps in 1975 without disclosing he had suffered recent schizophrenic episodes. He experienced another such episode less than a week into training and was dismissed from the service. He argued he was entitled to disability benefits as his short service exacerbated his condition, but VA denied his claim. At the time, VA could reject claims simply by demonstrating veterans' conditions predated their service. In 2003, however, the department conceded that interpretation was unlawful and announced that it would instead have to prove veterans' service did not aggravate pre-existing conditions. 

While decisions on disability benefits are generally considered final and irreversible after veterans exhaust their initial appeals—as George did in 1977—Congress authorized the “clear and unmistakable error” exception. George re-challenged his benefits denial to VA’s Board of Veterans Appeals in 2014, arguing such an error had occurred when the department originally relied on a faulty interpretation of the law. The board rejected the argument, with the Supreme Court eventually following suit. 

In a majority opinion written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the high court ruled an agency changing its interpretation of a law or regulation did not constitute a clear and unmistakable error. VA admitting it got the regulation wrong initially did not change that basic principle, the court said, adding the decision in George’s case was not wrong at the time. 

“The correct application of a binding regulation does not constitute ‘clear and unmistakable error’ at the time a decision is rendered, even if that regulation is subsequently invalidated,” Coney Barrett wrote. She added that statutory language regarding agency errors was unique to VA and had never been clearly defined. 

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch said VA’s failure to provide George the “courtesy” of a new hearing was “inexcusable.” Gorsuch suggested the majority opinion could have wider reaching implications, arguing no agency should face immunity when making decisions under false pretenses.

“Even if an agency’s unlawful regulations may bind its own employees until a court says otherwise,” Gorsuch wrote, “that does not mean its decisions applying those regulations to others are error-free.”

Gorsuch also recognized, however, that Congress has provided special recourses for “those who have left private life to serve their country.” He added the majority opinion would impact “countless other decisions” made by VA. 

In a separate dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said agencies should not be able to use their own mistakes to protect themselves against further scrutiny. 

“The mere fact that the board relied on a plainly invalid regulation does not shield its final decision from review based on clear and unmistakable error,” Sotomayor said. 

The decision follows one last week in which the Supreme Court ruled individuals had little recourse in response to potential improper action by federal personnel. In Egbert v. Boule, the court ruled federal officers should generally not be subject to lawsuits alleging excessive force as doing so could prove detrimental to national security.

This article was published first on GovExec, a FederalSoup partner site. 

NEXT STORY: Firefighters union calls for higher pay amid staffing shortage

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.