In an issue of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit addressed whether the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (“Veterans Court”) has the authority to certify class actions. The case arose from the denial of a Vietnam War veteran’s administrative claim for disability benefits for service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes, hypertension, and strokes. In early 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) notified the veteran that his claim had been denied because his Marine Corps discharge was “other than honorable.” The veteran challenged the VA’s decision and separately applied to upgrade his discharge status. In March 2015, the VA informed him that it would not process his appeal until it received records regarding his discharge status.
In April 2015, the veteran filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Veterans Court – requesting that it order the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to promptly adjudicate his disability benefits application and certify a class of all veterans who had applied for VA benefits, had timely challenged a denial, had not received a decision within twelve months, and had demonstrated medical or financial hardship. The Veterans Court denied the petition on the grounds that it lacked authority to certify classes of claims or to adjudicate disability claims on an aggregate basis.
Plaintiff appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which reversed – holding that the Veterans Court has the authority to certify a class of veterans’ claims or to maintain similar aggregate resolution procedures. The Federal Circuit panel reasoned that although Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 23 does not apply in Veterans Court, the All Writs Act authorized the Veterans Court to certify a class of – or otherwise aggregate – similarly situated veterans’ claims; in so holding, the panel opinion noted that 38 U.S.C. § 7264(a) expressly permits the Veterans Court to create the procedures it needs to exercise its jurisdiction – including procedures to address aggregate or class claims. The Federal Circuit rejected the VA Secretary’s argument that the appeal was moot because plaintiff was ultimately determined to be eligible for full disability benefits. In so holding, the Federal Circuit panel emphasized that plaintiff’s claim was resolved after he sought class treatment and was capable of repetition in any event. The Federal Circuit thus reversed the Veterans Court decision for abuse of discretion and remanded the case for further proceedings.