RESPONDENT: Woodrow Sanders
LOCATION: US Department of Veterans Affairs
DOCKET NO.: 07-1209
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Jun 16, 2008
ARGUED: Dec 08, 2008
DECIDED: Apr 21, 2009
Christopher J. Meade - argued the cause for the respondent Simmons
Eric D. Miller - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the petitioner
Mark R. Lippman - argued the cause for the respondent Sanders
Facts of the case
While serving in the United States army in 1944, Woodrow Sanders had a bazooka explode near him, burning the right side of his face. Sanders also claimed that the explosion had damaged his right eye. However subsequent examinations by Veterans' Affairs ("VA") optometrists suggested that the cause of the condition was difficult to determine and was likely due to an infection. When Sanders appeared before the Board of Veterans' Appeals, arguing that the injury was service related and seeking cost-free treatment, the Board denied his claim, finding that the injury was not service related. On appeal to the Veterans Court, Mr. Sanders argued that the VA failed to provide notice as to who was responsible for obtaining the evidence necessary to substantiate his claim, as required by the notice provision of the Veterans Claims Assistance Act of 2000 ("VCAA"). The Veterans Court affirmed the Board, basing its decision on the fact that Sanders did not suffer any "specific prejudice" due to the VA's failure to notify.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the Veterans Court, finding that the VCAA does not require any showing of prejudice. Any failure to notify as required by the Act creates a presumption of prejudice that need not be alleged or proved by the veteran seeking medical assistance.
Did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit err in presuming a prejudicial error when the VA fails to give notice to claimant as to who is responsible for obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate the claim?
Media for Shinseki v. SandersAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 08, 2008 in Shinseki v. Sanders
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 21, 2009 in Shinseki v. Sanders
Stephen G. Breyer:
The second case called Shinseki versus Sanders involves harmless errors, notice errors and veterans benefit.
Now when a veteran applies to the Department of Foreign Affairs for benefits, the Veterans administration has to help that veteran prepare the claim for benefits.
And in doing that, the Veterans administration has to send the veteran some notices, various notices.
Some tell the veteran for example “What information is missing?”
“What additional information has to be provided”, and “Who is going to provide what?”
“Which information the Veterans Administration will provide and which the veteran has to provide?”
The law also says a Veterans Court and the Court of Appeals for this Federal Circuit when they review a veteran's benefit decision granting or denying the benefit, they have to take due account of the rule of prejudicial error.
And that means they have to apply ordinary rules of harmless error.
Now, we here consider two cases.
In one of those cases, a Veterans Court found that a notice error of failure to give the right notice was harmless.
And in the other case, it found that the notice error was harmful.
The Federal Circuit reversed the first decision and in doing that, it laid down a set of harmless-error rules.
And in essence, those rules would find every such error harmful.
Unless the VA shows the veteran already knew the information or it just couldn't have been entitled to the benefit under the law.
Well, our job is in this case is to ask whether the rules that the Federal Circuit laid down, if you're still following this, we have to ask whether the rules that the Federal Circuit laid down are consistent with the law's ordinary civil case harmless-error rules.
Our answer is no.
They're not consistent.
They are too complicated.
They are too rigid.
They are too likely to make a lower court like the Veterans Court reach a long conclusion namely find an error it was harmful when it really isn't harmful after you read the record. That becomes obvious.
So, that's our final holding.
And then we review the records in the individual cases, and in one case, we reverse the Federal Circuit.
And then in the other, we vacate its decision and remand the case and we explained all this much more fully in the opinion.
Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsburg joined.