Conley Monk Jr. of New Haven, Conn., is claiming emotional, psychological and reputational harm in a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs because the agency repeatedly denied his benefits for disability compensation after his military service in Vietnam. A federal judge ordered on Friday, March 29, 2024, for Monk’s case to move forward, after the VA sought to have it dismissed.

Conley Monk Jr. of New Haven, Conn., is claiming emotional, psychological and reputational harm in a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs because the agency repeatedly denied his benefits for disability compensation after his military service in Vietnam. A federal judge ordered on Friday, March 29, 2024, for Monk’s case to move forward, after the VA sought to have it dismissed. (Conley Monk)

WASHINGTON — A federal district court judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs that claims the agency systematically engaged in a pattern of rejecting applications for disability benefits from Black veterans at a higher rate than for white veterans.

The practice has gone on since World War II, according to the lawsuit.

Judge Stefan Underhill denied the VA’s motion to reject a case brought by Vietnam veteran Conley Monk Jr. of Connecticut on behalf of himself and the estate of his father, a World War II veteran, that claims racial discrimination through “systematic benefits obstruction” for Black veterans.

Monk’s claim is on behalf of all Black applicants for veterans benefits administered by the VA or its predecessor since Jan. 1, 1945.

Underhill’s ruling issued Friday in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut rejected the VA’s argument that it is immune from the lawsuit and allows the case to move forward.

Monk, 74, is a former Marine Corps private who enlisted in 1968 and was sent to Vietnam a year later. The National Veterans Council for Legal Redress is another plaintiff in the lawsuit. The council, which Monk co-founded, is a nonprofit that works to advance the rights of veterans who have received other-than-honorable discharges.

Monk’s father, Conley Monk Sr., served in Normandy, France, in 1944 but was denied a claim for disability compensation for a stomach condition that he developed during the war, according to court documents. Monk’s father served in a segregated Army unit.

“Plaintiffs are not aware of any changes in VA practices, policies or procedures in or around 2001 that would suggest the discriminatory trend between 2001 and 2020 represented a departure from prior periods,” according to the lawsuit.

VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said Monday that the VA is working to address racial disparities in approval rates. He declined to comment further on the case, citing pending litigation.

Monk’s lawsuit, filed in 2022, claims the VA should have known about “pervasive racial disparities in the award of VA benefits,” and the agency is liable for the resulting “dignitary, emotional and psychological harm.”

“The failure of VA leadership to redress these discrepancies through improved training, supervision, auditing, monitoring and quality control resulted in subjecting Mr. Monk Jr., Mr. Monk Sr., and members of [the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress] to a racially discriminatory system,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit is brought under the federal Tort Claims Act, which waives the sovereign immunity of the U.S. for claims resulting in injury or loss of property caused by “the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the government.”

The Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale Law School, which is representing the plaintiffs, said after the judge’s ruling that the VA’s attention to racial disparities in benefits administration “is long overdue.”

“This is a victory not just for Conley Monk but for the countless Black veterans who have been subjected to the VA’s discriminatory benefits system over decades,” said Jared Hirschfield, a law student intern at the clinic.

In 2021, the VA responded to a Freedom of Information Act request and sent the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress benefits records from 2001-2020.

According to the lawsuit, the organization obtained a statistical analysis of the records, which showed Black veterans were 21.9% more likely to have a claim for disability denied than white veterans.

“For decades, there have been anecdotal reports and widespread suspicion of racial discrimination in these programs. In 2021, statistical evidence confirmed, for the first time, racial discrimination by VA,” the lawsuit states. “Black veterans have been subjected to the emotional, dignitary, and reputational harms of interacting with a racially discriminatory VA benefits system.”

Monk was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam and later developed diabetes, which has been linked to exposure to the herbicide. He also was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to military service, according to the lawsuit.

But “for over 40 years, the VA repeatedly denied him access to education, housing and medical benefits,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also pointed to other examples of discrimination within the VA’s system for disability benefits, including a series of emails in 2017 between a veterans law judge and an attorney with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals that contained “racist messages about Black claimants” and was referred to as a “forum of hate” in the communications.

The VA’s Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans also notified the Veterans Benefits Administration for several years starting in 2013 that it believed minority veterans were receiving lower compensation ratings than non-minority veterans, according to the lawsuit.

An internal study by the VA in 2017 confirmed Black veterans received the lowest grant rates of any ethnic group, according to the lawsuit. The results of the study were provided through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Underhill wrote in his 25-page decision that Monk’s claims arise from a backdrop of “systematic benefits obstruction for Black veterans.”

Monk’s challenges claim “failure of VA officials and employees to maintain a racially neutral and nondiscriminatory system of administering benefits,” the judge wrote.

The lawsuit states Monk received a rifle marksman badge and a Vietnam service medal. But he exhibited signs of PTSD after his unit pulled out of Vietnam and he was transferred to Japan.

Monk’s “PTSD led to two altercations in Okinawa,” and he agreed to an other-than-honorable discharge because of his conduct and left the military.

He was discharged in 1970, according to court documents. Monk became ineligible for benefits because of the status of his discharge. Monk repeatedly petitioned the military to overturn its decision but was turned down.

In 2015, Monk was awarded the benefits that he had been denied for 45 years, according to the lawsuit. In 2020, his other-than-honorable discharge was overturned.

“The harms of racial discrimination in the military are extensive. Non-white service members are subjected to disproportionately higher levels of discipline and punishment than their white counterparts,” the lawsuit said.

Monk is claiming negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision by the VA of its employees who made determinations on claims.

The lawsuit seeks damages for the pain and harm inflicted and not for the specific benefits denied.

“To adjudicate Monk’s claims, I would not need to ‘determine first whether the VA acted properly in handling’ his requests for benefits,” the judge wrote. “Additionally, Monk’s alleged harm — emotional distress — occurred from ‘having to litigate claims and navigate a VA benefits system that administered benefits in a racially discriminatory way.’ The risk of harm that veterans would be denied benefits in a racially discriminatory manner was reasonably foreseeable to the VA.”

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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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