SAN FRANCISCO -- Veterans challenging the constitutionality of a Civil War-era law that limits attorney fees when challenging government denial of death or disability, have won a round in U.S. District Court.
In a sharply worded order, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel reaffirmed a $120,000 fine on the Veterans Administration for destroying evidence related to veterans' claims they were exposed to radiation during nuclear tests during and after World War II.
The order, issued Thursday, requires the VA to reimburse the National Association of Radiation Survivors, plaintiffs in the action, for 'various expenses,' and imposes a requirements for the conduct of further discovery. A special master was appointed to ensure compliance.
The veterans are involved in a class-action suit challenging the constitutionality of a Civil War-era law limiting attorney fees to $10 for veterans challenging government denial of death or disability claims.
The veterans and their families say they need legal help to fight denial of benefits for their exposure to atomic bomb testing during and after World War II. Their case is scheduled to the heard starting Sept. 1, according to lawyer Gordon Erspamer.
The ultimate resolution of the case could also affect veterans with all sorts of claims, including being exposed to defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam conflict.
'There is convincing evidence that a number of individuals in positions of authority willfully attempted to thwart this court's investigation of possible improprieties relating to the destruction and non-production of relevant evidence,' Patel said.
'The Veterans Administration has demonstrated that it is either incapable or unwilling to provide discovery in accordance with the federal rules governing discovery.
'Given this factual record, the court concludes that the Veterans Administration has acted in a sanctionable manner in a variety of respects.'
The judge had imposed a fine of $100,000 while ruling from the bench on Jan. 8. In her latest ruling, she ordered the VA to pay the veterans who are suing the agency $105,000 for costs in pursuing the action and $15,000 to the court 'for unnecessary consumption of the court's time and resources.'
CharlesHorsky of Washington, D.C., was appointed to serve as special master and he will serve for an undetermined period of time, the judge said. She ordered his fees and expenses to be paid by the VA.
'We're overjoyed, justice finally has been done,' said Dorothy Legeretta, administrative director of the National Association of Radiation Survivors.