473 U.S. 305 (1985), 84-571, Walters v. National Association of Radiation Survivors

Docket Nº:No. 84-571
Citation:473 U.S. 305, 105 S.Ct. 3180, 87 L.Ed.2d 220, 53 U.S.L.W. 4947
Party Name:Walters v. National Association of Radiation Survivors
Case Date:June 28, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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473 U.S. 305 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 3180, 87 L.Ed.2d 220, 53 U.S.L.W. 4947

Walters

v.

National Association of Radiation Survivors

No. 84-571

United States Supreme Court

June 28, 1985

Argued March 27, 1985

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE

NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA

Syllabus

Title 38 U.S.C. § 3404(C) limits to $10 the fee that may be paid an attorney or agent who represents a veteran seeking benefits from the Veterans' Administration (VA) for service-connected death or disability. Appellees (two veterans' organizations, three individual veterans, and a veteran's widow) brought an action in Federal District Court claiming that the fee limitation denied them any realistic opportunity to obtain legal representation in presenting their claims to the VA, and hence violated their rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and under the First Amendment. The District Court agreed and entered a nationwide "preliminary injunction" barring appellants from enforcing the fee limitation.

Held:

1. This Court has jurisdiction of the appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1252, which grants the Court jurisdiction over an appeal

from an interlocutory or final judgment, decree or order of any court of the United States . . . holding an Act of Congress unconstitutional in any civil action . . . to which the United States or any of its agencies, or any officer or employee thereof, as such officer or employee, is a party.

McLucas v. DeChamplain, 421 U.S. 21. The injunction at issue creates precisely the problem to which § 1252 was addressed -- to have this Court directly review decisions involving the exercise of judicial power to impair the enforcement of an Act of Congress on constitutional grounds, where the decision has effects beyond the controversy before the court below -- since it enjoins the operation of the fee limitation on constitutional grounds across the country and under all circumstances. Whether or not the injunction is framed as a "holding" of unconstitutionality is irrelevant, as long as it enjoined the statute's operation. Pp. 316-319.

2. The fee limitation provision of § 3404(c) does not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 319-334.

(a) Invalidation of the fee limitation would frustrate Congress' principal goal of wanting the veteran to get the entirety of the benefits award without having to divide it with an attorney. Invalidation would

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also complicate a process that Congress wished to be as informal and nonadversarial as possible. Pp. 321-326.

(b) It would take an extraordinarily strong showing of probability of error in the VA's present benefits claim procedures -- and the probability that the presence of attorneys would sharply diminish that possibility -- to warrant a holding that the fee limitation denies claimants due process of law. No such showing was made out on the record before the District Court in this case. In light of the Government interests at stake, the evidence before the District Court as to the success rates in claims handled with or without lawyers shows no such great disparity as to warrant the inference that the fee limitation violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. And what evidence there is regarding complex cases falls far short of the kind that would warrant upsetting Congress' judgment that the present system is the manner in which it wished claims for veterans' benefits adjudicated. Pp. 326-334.

3. Nor does the fee limitation violate appellees' First Amendment rights. Appellees' First Amendment arguments are inseparable from their due process claim, which focused on the question whether the present process allows a claimant to make a meaningful presentation. Pp. 334-335.

589 F.Supp. 1302, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 336. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 338. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 358.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Title 38 U.S.C. § 3404(c) limits to $10 the fee that may be paid an attorney or agent who represents a veteran seeking benefits for service-connected death or disability. The United States District Court for the Northern District of California held that this limit violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and the First Amendment, because it denies veterans or their survivors the opportunity to retain counsel of their choice in pursuing their claims. We noted probable jurisdiction of the Government's appeal, 469 U.S. 1085 (1984), and we now reverse.

I

Congress has by statute established an administrative system for granting service-connected death or disability benefits to veterans. See 38 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. The amount of the benefit award is not based upon need, but upon service connection -- that is, whether the disability is causally related to an injury sustained in the service -- and the degree of incapacity caused by the disability. A detailed system has been established by statute and Veterans' Administration (VA) regulation for determining a veteran's entitlement, with final authority resting with an administrative body known as the Board of Veterans' Appeals (BVA). Judicial review of VA decisions is precluded by statute. 38 U.S.C. § 211(a); Johnson v. Robison, 415 U.S. 361 (1974). The controversy in this case centers on the opportunity for a benefit applicant

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or recipient to obtain legal counsel to aid in the presentation of his claim to the VA. Section 3404(c) of Title 38 provides:

The Administrator shall determine and pay fees to agents or attorneys recognized under this section in allowed claims for monetary benefits under laws administered by the Veterans' Administration. Such fees --

* * * *

(2) shall not exceed $10 with respect to any one claim. . . .

Section 3405 provides criminal penalties for any person who charges fees in excess of the limitation of § 3404.

Appellees here are two veterans' organizations, three individual veterans, and a veteran's widow.1 The two veterans' organizations are the National Association of Radiation Survivors, an organization principally concerned with obtaining compensation for its members for injuries resulting from atomic bomb tests, and Swords to Plowshares Veterans Rights Organization, an organization particularly devoted to the concerns of Vietnam veterans. The complaint contains no further allegation with respect to the numbers of members in either organization who are veteran claimants. Appellees did not seek class certification.

Appellees contended in the District Court that the fee limitation provision of § 3404 [105 S.Ct. 3183] denied them any realistic opportunity to obtain legal representation in presenting their claims to the VA, and hence violated their rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and under the First Amendment. The District Court agreed with the appellees on both of these grounds, and entered a nationwide "preliminary injunction" barring appellants from enforcing the fee limitation. 589 F.Supp. 1302 (1984). To understand fully the posture in which the case reaches us, it is necessary to discuss the administrative scheme in some detail.

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Congress began providing veterans pensions in early 1789, and after every conflict in which the Nation has been involved, Congress has, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "provided for him who has borne the battle, and his widow and his orphan." The VA was created by Congress in 1930, and since that time has been responsible for administering the congressional program for veterans' benefits. In 1978, the year covered by the report of the Legal Services Corporation to Congress that was introduced into evidence in the District Court, approximately 800,000 claims for service-connected disability or death and pensions were decided by the 58 regional offices of the VA. Slightly more than half of these were claims for service-connected disability or death, and the remainder were pension claims. Of the 800,000 total claims in 1978, more than 400,000 were allowed, and some 379,000 were denied. Sixty-six thousand of these denials were contested at the regional level; about a quarter of these contests were dropped, 150 prevailed on reconsideration at the local level, and the remaining 36,000 were appealed to the BVA. At that level some 4,500, or 12%, prevailed, and another 13% won a remand for further proceedings. Although these figures are from 1978, the statistics in evidence indicate that the figures remain fairly constant from year to year.

As might be expected in a system which processes such a large number of claims each year, the process prescribed by Congress for obtaining disability benefits does not contemplate the adversary mode of dispute resolution utilized by courts in this country. It is commenced by the submission of a claim form to the local veterans agency, which form is provided by the VA either upon request or upon receipt of notice of the death of a veteran. Upon application, a claim generally is first reviewed by a three-person "rating board" of the VA regional office -- consisting of a medical specialist, a legal specialist, and an "occupational specialist." A claimant is "entitled to a hearing at any time on any issue involved in a claim. . . ." 38 CFR § 3.103(c) (1984). Proceedings in front of the rating board "are ex parte in nature," § 3.103(a); no

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Government official appears in...

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