The United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) administered disability benefits in a racially discriminatory manner for decades, disproportionately rejecting Black veteran disability claims at a much higher rate than White veterans, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic.
The lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of Conley Monk Jr., a 74-year-old former United States Marine Corps member, alleges that the VA’s disability compensation claim determinations systematically discriminated against Black veterans like him from 2001 to 2020, citing VA records from that period.
These records were obtained last year after Monk – as co-founder and director of the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress (NVCLR) – and the Black Veterans Project (BVP) filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on the administration of service-connected disability compensation. The VA initially failed to respond to all the requests fully, the suit says, but in 2021 the department “conducted further searches and produced additional documents” months after NVCLR and BVP filed a complaint in U.S. district court. The VA ultimately disclosed data for claims from 2001 to 2020, but the VA represented it did not fully retain disability decision data prior to 2001.
According to a Yale University statistician who analyzed the VA records, the records show throughout the two-decade period that the VA denied Black veterans disability compensation at an average rate of 29.5%, compared to the 24.2% of White veterans who were denied disability benefits. The VA notably granted disability compensation to Black veterans at an average rate of 30.3% and White veterans at an average rate of 37.1%, the lawsuit says the statistician found.
“I’m willing to get involved in this fight,” Monk told CNN on Tuesday. “This is something that’s not only going to benefit me, but it’s going to benefit other veterans. And if I have to lead the charge, then therefore I will lead the charge.”
VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes, who is a Black Army veteran, did not specifically address the lawsuit in his emailed statement to CNN but acknowledged that Black veterans have historically been wrongly denied access to VA care or benefits “due to racism.”
“We are actively working to right these wrongs, and we will stop at nothing to ensure that all Black Veterans get the VA services they have earned and deserve,” the statement reads.
“Additionally, we are taking steps to ensure that our claims process combats institutional racism, rather than perpetuating it; re-evaluating our policies to equitably serve Veterans who were wrongly given Other Than Honorable discharges; and proactively reaching out to Veterans with Other Than Honorable discharges to make sure they know that they may be able to access VA benefits and health care.”
Monk wants to be awarded compensatory damages, to have his legal fees paid for by the VA, and any other relief that the Court deems just and equitable, according to the lawsuit. After the VA did not respond to an administrative claim Monk filed in February 2022, Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic filed the suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligent supervision.
Plaintiff’s multiple applications denied, lawsuit alleges
Monk voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968 and was deployed to Vietnam a year later, according to the lawsuit. After four months of gruesome death and violence, Monk’s unit was pulled out of Vietnam and temporarily stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where he began to fully experience the onset of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the suit says. The lawsuit notes that there was little understanding of PTSD at the time because it was not recognized as a medical condition until 1980.
According to the lawsuit, Monk was sent to base prison in Okinawa after two separate altercations with his unit he believes were caused by his PTSD. He was told that he’d have to stay there until he signed papers agreeing to an Undesirable discharge – now known as an “Other than Honorable” discharge. Monk signed these papers without understanding that he’d be forfeiting his eligibility for veteran benefits, the suit says.
When Monk then applied for unemployment compensation once he left the Marine Corps, the VA conducted a Character of Discharge (COD) determination and denied him in 1971, finding that he was “discharged under dishonorable conditions and is not therefore entitled to any benefits administered by the Veterans’ Administration.”
According to the suit, the VA improperly denied Monk’s applications for education, housing, and disability benefits for nearly 50 years after he developed PTSD in Vietnam, even despite a psychiatrist’s diagnosis in 2011 that Monk had a severe case of PTSD arising from his service in Vietnam. Only after the military upgraded his discharge status, the VA eventually granted Monk his benefits in 2015 and again in 2020, but the lawsuit says that he was never fully compensated for the harm caused through the repeated denials.
“VA’s tortious conduct caused Mr. Monk to suffer periods of housing insecurity, financial hardship, and difficulty accessing proper medical care. He suffered severe emotional harm when he was forced to repeatedly relive the most traumatic moments of his life as part of his applications and re-applications for disability compensation. And he suffered dignitary and reputational harm as a result of VA’s discriminatory actions,” the suit reads.
Citing the federal government’s own studies which concluded that Black servicemembers were substantially more likely than their White counterparts to face military justice or disciplinary action, the lawsuit alleges VA officials should have known that racial bias affected the discharge status of Black veterans when they relied on it to make disability compensation determinations.
An Equity Action Plan released by the VA announced that it is studying “disparities in mental health disability compensation rates, particularly for Black veterans who are more likely to apply for compensation for PTSD than other veterans but less likely to be granted compensation.”
Monk told CNN that he believes too many non-veterans working in the VA are insensitive to veterans’ needs. He also said more Black people need to be in positions of power so that the department can better serve all veterans of every race.
According to Monk, the VA’s discriminatory practices even block Black families from attaining generational wealth, referencing his father, who served in a segregated unit in the U.S. Army during World War II. Monk told CNN that he and his siblings would’ve been able to afford college if the VA had given their father disability benefits when he applied in the 1940s.
“They’re not looking at the fact that it’s gonna not only cause damage to me, the individual veteran, but it’s gonna cause damage to their families and their families to come,” Monk said.
Adam Henderson, a law student intern working with the clinic on Monk’s case, told CNN in an emailed statement, “We want to emphasize that VA leadership knew, or should have known, of the racial disparities in their administration of veterans benefits, but failed to make changes to eliminate racial bias in VA programs. This negligence harmed Mr. Monk and he now files this lawsuit seeking to be fully compensated for the harm that the VA caused by repeatedly denying his benefits applications. But Mr. Monk isn’t alone, and these discriminatory practices haven’t been left in the past.”