Oral argument: Dec. 8, 2008
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit (May 16, 2007)
ADMINISTRATIVE LAW, DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, BURDEN OF PROOF, NOTICE, VETERANS CLAIMS ASSISTANCE ACT OF 2000
Woodrow Sanders and Patricia Simmons are U.S. military veterans who did not receive notice regarding who was responsible for obtaining evidence for their disability claims as is required by the Veterans Claims Assistance Act of 2000. At issue in this consolidated case is whether the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) presumptively bears the burden of proving that a notice error in such benefits claims was harmless. The veterans argue that the language of 38 U.S.C. § 7261(b)(2) and the pro-claimant structure of the veterans benefits system create a presumptive burden on the VA. The VA argues that the Supreme Court should interpret the statute according to the prejudicial error rule of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 706; this interpretation would require a claimant to prove that a VA notice error actually harmed the outcome of his or her claim. A Supreme Court ruling in favor of the veterans would bolster the pro-claimant system, making it easier for veterans to successfully bring claims. A decision for the veterans, however, could slow down the processing of deserving claims because the VA would have to defend its denial of claims where there was a notice error, but where the claimant did not suffer any harm from the error.