April 21, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Shinseki v. Sanders

On April 21, the Supreme Court decided Shinseki v. Sanders, No. 07-1209.

The Veterans Claims Assistance Act of 2000 requires the Department of Veterans Affairs ("the VA") to help veterans develop their claims for disability benefits by notifying them, upon the filing of a claim, of "any information, and any medical or lay evidence, not previously provided . . . that is necessary to substantiate the claim." The notice must indicate what information the VA will try to obtain itself and what information the veteran must provide. 38 U.S.C. § 5103(a). The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims ("the Veterans Court") is required to "take due account of the rule of prejudicial error" in reviewing decisions on disability claims. 38 U.S.C. § 7261(b)(2).

The two veterans whose claims were involved in this case were given incomplete information about additional evidence needed to process their claims or about who would be expected to provide that evidence. In both cases the claims were denied.

The Veterans Court applied a standard that it had developed for determining whether a notice error was prejudicial, affirming the denial in one case but reversing it in the other. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit rejected the Veterans Court's standard and applied its own, which presumed that every notice error was prejudicial unless the VA proved the absence of prejudice. It held that the insufficient notice was prejudicial in both cases.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that neither court's approach to determining whether a notice error was prejudicial—both of which presumed prejudice for some types of error—was correct. The correct standard, the Court said, is the same "harmless-error" rule that courts ordinarily apply in civil cases, under which prejudice is never assumed but must be proved by the party who seeks to reverse a decision because of the error. The Court reinstated the decision of the Veterans Court affirming denial of benefits in one case and remanded so that court could reconsider the other case under the correct standard.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court. Justice Souter filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens and Ginsburg joined.

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