A lawsuit accusing Veterans Affairs officials of racial discrimination in disability benefits processing can move ahead after a federal court on Friday rejected a government request to dismiss the case.

The move potentially opens the door for a significant legal review of more than five decades of VA benefits decisions, with a focus on whether Black veterans are less likely to have their cases approved than their white peers because of systemic problems within the department.

Advocates initially filed the lawsuit in November 2022, and hailed last week’s decision by the U.S. District Court for Connecticut as an important step forward in a likely years-long legal fight.

“Since its inception, the department has designed and implemented its benefits programs to reinforce our nation’s racial caste system, neglecting its moral, ethical and legal responsibility to intervene to ensure racism was not a barrier to accessing home loans, education benefits and disability compensation,” Richard Brookshire, co-founder of Black Veterans Project, said in a statement.

“The consequence has been dire, resulting in hundreds of billions in economic loss to Black veterans.”

The suit was filed by the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic on behalf of Vietnam War veteran Conley Monk Jr. It asks for “redress for the harms caused by the failure of VA staff and leaders to administer these benefits programs in a manner free from racial discrimination against Black veterans.”

Last month, department leaders announced plans to overhaul outreach efforts directed at transitioning troops as part of an effort to close gaps in disability benefits grant rates between Black and white vets.

According to VA’s internal research, from 2017 to 2023 Black veterans had a higher acceptance rate for claims submitted within the first year (85% to 83% for whites) but a lower rate after that (65% to 68% for whites). Officials have said a key in fixing the problem is getting minority veterans to file sooner.

But research from the Government Accountability Office released last summer found that from 2010 to 2020, Black veterans were less likely than any other racial group to have their initial disability claims approved by the department. Roughly 61% of Black veterans saw those claims accepted, as opposed to 75% of white veterans.

The Monk lawsuit cites in part VA documents that found between 2001 and 2020, the average denial rate for disability claims filed for Black veterans was 29.5%, significantly above the 24.2% for white veterans.

Advocates say they believe the problem dates back even further, to at least the 1970s and possibly as far back as World War II.

“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. “This decision not only excites and inspires me, but also brings hope to other veterans who have suffered.”

Department officials said they could not comment on the ongoing litigation. But VA press secretary Terrence Hayes in a statement reiterated leadership promises that “we will not rest until every Black veteran – and every veteran – gets the benefits they deserve here at VA.”

Officials with the Yale clinic have said they will help file related administrative claims on behalf of veterans who believe their past cases may have been wrongly handled because of systemic problems.

More information is available on their website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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