A federal circuit court has upheld the right of veterans and their caregivers to challenge decisions by the Department of Veterans Affairs about their benefits.

A federal circuit court has upheld the right of veterans and their caregivers to challenge decisions by the Department of Veterans Affairs about their benefits. (Department of Veterans Affairs)

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court has rejected a claim by the Department of Veterans Affairs that would block the right of hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans from challenging decisions of a VA caregiver program over benefits that support in-home assistance.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled Feb. 27 that Jeremy Beaudette, a Marine Corps veteran who suffered multiple head injuries from five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his wife, Maya Beaudette, who quit her job to care for him, had the right to challenge a 2018 decision by the VA Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers to deny them benefits.

The program gives benefits to family caregivers to provide at-home care for disabled veterans. The assistance includes a monthly stipend ranging from $1,800 to $3,000, as well as training and other support.

Veterans must suffer from debilitating injuries impacting daily functions to qualify for the program.

Jeremy Beaudette had suffered multiple concussions while serving in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2012 that resulted in a traumatic brain injury and rendered him legally blind, according to the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which represented the Beaudettes.

A three-judge panel last week upheld a 2021 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims that allows the couple to proceed with their case before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

The panel rejected the VA’s argument that the caretaker program had made a “medical determination” that was not subject to court appeal.

“There is a strong presumption favoring judicial review of agency actions,” the judges wrote in their decision. “The [VA] has not met its burden to show all caregiver program decisions are exempt from judicial review.”

The VA and Department of Justice could choose to appeal their case to the U.S. Supreme Court but declined to comment on pending litigation.

The couples’ lawsuit, which had been certified as a class-action case, could potentially affect more than 400,000 veterans and caregivers who have received decisions for caretaker benefits, according to the decision.

The judges noted in their decision that the VA has issued notices of “potential appeal rights” to all the identified veterans and caregivers.

The National Veterans Legal Services Program described the victory as securing “the rights of hundreds of thousands of veterans and caretakers like the Beaudettes … who were unjustly denied, removed or had their benefits reduced.”

The nonprofit legal services program has also represented a class of veterans and caretakers similarly affected.

Since the 2021 ruling, more than 14,000 veterans and their caretakers have appealed decisions or submitted a supplemental claim for review, according to the legal services program.

Jeremy and Maya Beaudette had originally applied for caregiver program benefits in 2013 because of his “inability to perform activities of daily living and his substantial need for supervision and protection,” according to court documents.

Though the VA had “consistently” found the Beaudettes eligible for benefits through the caretaker program, he was disqualified in February 2018 after seeking to delay his annual reassessment because he was recovering from two surgeries, according to the findings in the court decision.

The Beaudettes sought to appeal the decision in July 2020 before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, but the VA maintained its decision could not be overruled.

The Beaudettes then challenged the VA’s decision to block their appeal by filing a claim in 2020 before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The court supported the appeal in 2021 and ordered the VA to notify all veterans and caregivers who had ever received a caregiver program decision.

“The veterans court ordered the [VA] secretary to notify claimants of their right to appeal adverse caregiver program determinations to the board,” according to court documents.

But the VA also appealed the ruling in 2023 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Court, which last week upheld the decision granting the Beaudettes the right to appeal.

“The Beaudettes had no adequate alternative means to obtain the relief,” other than to file an appeal before the veterans’ court, the judges wrote. “We conclude the Beaudettes and other similarly situated veterans and caregivers have an indisputable right to judicial review of caregiver program decisions.”

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Linda F. Hersey is a veterans reporter based in Washington, D.C. She previously covered the Navy and Marine Corps at Inside Washington Publishers. She also was a government reporter at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska, where she reported on the military, economy and congressional delegation.

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