Veterans Disability Info Blog

U.S. Court of Appeals for Vet Claims Annual Report Findings

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims issued its Annual Report for the Fiscal Year 2020, which ran from October 1, 2019, to September 30, 2020. The report paints a discouraging picture of a court stretched to its limits, where appellants face long wait times for dispositions of their cases, and where a minority of cases are decided in favor of the veterans seeking relief. The report is laden with statistics on court processes, which is certainly off-putting for suffering veterans who want to be seen as flesh-and-blood people, rather than numbers. 

During FY2020, the Court as a whole processed 8,430 appeals (12 percent of which were pro se, meaning the appellant veteran represented himself, at the time of disposition). The Court received 309 petitions (37 percent of which were pro se at the time of disposition). In addition, there were 6,744 EAJA applications. EAJA refers to the Equal Access to Justice Act, a 1980 federal law that requires the federal government to pay a party’s legal fees when that party prevails in litigation against the government. Without EAJA, veterans would effectively be priced out of the appeals process, since legal fees could totally consume the benefits they’re seeking. All told, the Court made a total of 15,729 dispositions.

This court consists of one clerk, seven permanent Judges, and two Judges serving temporarily as part of an expansion provision. Recently retired Judges have the option to serve further as recall-eligible Senior Judges. Yet, this small staff has exclusive jurisdiction over appeals of decisions by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

For the Court as a whole, the median time from filing an appeal to disposition of the case was 265 days, almost nine months. 

Dispositions Breakdown: 

  • Clerk of the Court — The median time from filing an appeal to disposition by the Clerk was 238 days, almost eight months.
  • A single judge of the Court — The median time for disposition of a single-judge decision from the time it is assigned to chambers is 56 days, almost two months. However, counting pre-chambers procedural activity, the median time was actually 428 days, or just over 14 months.
  • Multiple judges of the Court — Once a case has been assigned to a multi-judge panel, the median time for disposition was 169 days, roughly five and a half months. However, counting pre-chambers procedural activity, the average time to make a disposition was 647 days, about 21-and-one-half months.

The Court handled significantly more cases in FY 2020 than in the previous year, due in large part to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals increasing its number of final decisions from 95,000 to more than 102,000. To help expedite cases, the Court recalled four retired judges to serve as Senior Judges. These jurists issued 179 single-judge decisions, participated in numerous panel decisions, and performed committee work for the Court. 

The report notes that “Congress recently renewed the Court’s temporary authority for nine active judges.” Since there is no reason to believe the Court’s workload will ease any time soon, the report suggests this temporary arrangement be made permanent.

So, how did veterans do in their appeals? Out of a total of 8,430 appeals, the results were as follows:

  • Affirmed — 551
  • Affirmed or dismissed in part, reversed or vacated, and remanded in part — 3,562
  • Reversed or vacated and remanded in whole or in part — 990
  • Remanded — 2,259
  • Dismissed for lack of jurisdiction or timeliness — 241
  • Dismissed for default — 335
  • Dismissed voluntarily — 492

Without knowing the details of the individual cases, we can still make some general observations. Having the Board’s decision affirmed is not a victory, nor is a dismissal. These lost cases total 1,619, or 19.2 percent of all the appeals. Cases that might count as victories (having been reversed or vacated and remanded in whole or in part, or remanded) totaled 3,249, or 38.5 percent of all appeals.  Cases that were reversed or vacated and remanded in whole or part were 990, or almost 12 percent.  Cases that were outright remanded were 2,259, or about 27 percent. 

If this snapshot of how the Court operates gives you pause, it should. Too many veterans underestimate the challenges of navigating the federal appeals court system where the government has lawyers paid to fight your claim. Minor errors can result in dismissals, simply because the Court must move onto the next. To have the best chance at a positive disposition of your case, you need to retain an experienced veterans’ benefits attorney with a track record of success.   

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