WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – The federal government was named as defendant in a class action filed March 2 by the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) on behalf of combat-disabled veterans who say they were not given their fair share of disability benefits.
According to the NVLSP, potential class members are veterans who may have served in the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Iraq or Afghanistan. They may have served in any branch of the military - Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force or Coast Guard.
Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) payments are received by more than 85,000 veterans a year. The government has capped retroactive payments to a period of six years. Attorneys for the NVLSP say that thousands of veterans have been shortchanged, and numbers are growing.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, names as lead plaintiff Simon Soto of Brownsville, Texas. In October, the Navy applied the six-year retroactive payment cap, cutting off a portion of Soto’s monthly payments, the suit states.
According to the NVLSP, “Simon Soto served honorably for six years in the Marine Corps and deployed twice to Iraq. On his first deployment he was assigned to mortuary affairs where he searched for, recovered and processed the remains of war casualties. As a result, Soto was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has had extreme difficulty adjusting to civilian life after returning from Iraq.”
In 2006 Soto was medically retired from the Marine Corps and he was awarded disability benefits by Veterans Affairs (VA). In June 2016, Soto applied for CRSC, and the benefits were awarded in October 2016. The effective date was July 2010, as assigned by the Navy. Soto maintains he should have gotten benefits from Jan. 1, 2008, when he met all the criteria. That’s the date that medical retirees like Soto were deemed entitled to the extended CRSC payments. Soto claims that action cost him more than $5,000 in CRSC benefit payments.
The Army created the Combat Related Special Compensation (CRSC) program for military retirees with combat-related disabilities that occurred in the line of duty as a result of armed conflict. The monthly payments are tax-free entitlements.
The website My Army Benefits explains the six-year cap: “CRSC is subject to the six-year statute of limitations, 31 U.S.C., Section 3702(b). In order to receive the full retroactive CRSC entitlement, you must file your CRSC claim within six years of the date of any VA rating decision that could potentially make you eligible for CRSC or the date you become entitled to retired pay, whichever is more recent. If you file your claim more than six years after initial eligibility, you will be restricted to six years of any retroactive entitlement.”
Thomas A. Moore is the program manager for Lawyers Serving Warriors, a project of the National Veterans Legal Services Program. He explains their goal in filing this suit: “Congress created CRSC years ago to provide tax-free income to certain veterans with combat-related disabilities. We hope that this lawsuit will compel the federal government to compensate these veterans with the full amount of retroactive CRSC that has been withheld from them by an unlawful policy.”
Moore told Legal Newsline that the class action has been filed in district court because the potential awards are capped at less than $10,000 per veteran, but it was a strategic move.
“The alternative would be to go to the Federal Court of Claims here in Washington, D.C. However, if we were to file a class action there, to be a class member, we would have to identify all the class members and send them notice, then they would have to opt in. In District Court, if a veteran meets the definition of a class member, the he or she is in the class unless they opt out.”
Moore can only guess as to how many class members there could be.
“There are thousands of veterans who are receiving CRSC currently, but we don’t know the timing of when they applied and when they were awarded CRSC and that’s critical. It’s all about retroactive compensation they are due once they are awarded CRSC. Our estimate is there could be a few thousand veterans detrimentally impacted by the statute of limitations.”
Timing is critical to whether or not a veteran gets fairly compensated.
“What the government is doing is if they award CRSC, if the veteran applies more than six years after having a VA rating decision of an effective date for a service-connected disability that ultimately is determined to be combat-related, if you don’t apply for CRSC within six years, then your retroactive compensation will be capped at six years,” he said.
It’s critical that veterans understand the process of when to apply, to avoid the six-year cap of benefits, and many don’t.
“The government is withholding potentially thousands of dollars from these veterans in retroactive combat-related compensation,” he said.