Walters v. National Association Of Radiation Survivors

473 U.S. 305 (1985)


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 contend that the fee limitation provision of 3404 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. The process prescribed by Congress for obtaining disability benefits does not contemplate the adversary mode of dispute resolution utilized by courts in this country. The process is designed to function throughout with a high degree of informality and solicitude for the claimant. There is no statute of limitations, and a denial of benefits has no formal res judicata effect; a claimant may resubmit as long as he presents new facts not previously forwarded. See 38 CFR 3.104, 3.105 (1984). The District Court first determined that recipients of service-connected death and disability benefits possess 'property' interests protected by the Due Process Clause. Mathews v. Eldridge. The court relied on the analysis developed in Mathews v. Eldridge, in which the Supreme Court stated the factors that must be weighed in determining what process is due an individual subject to a deprivation: (1) The private interest that will be affected by the official action; (2) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and (3) the Government's interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.' The court found that absent expert legal counsel claimants ran a significant risk of forfeiting their rights, because of the highly complex issues involved in some cases. It found that neither the VA officials themselves nor the service organizations are providing the full array of services that paid attorneys might make available to claimants. The court found that a heavy caseload and the lack of legal training combined to prevent service representatives from adequately researching a claim. Facts are not developed, and 'it is standard practice for service organization representatives to submit merely a one to two-page handwritten brief.' Based on the inability of the VA and service organizations to provide the full range of services that a retained attorney might the court concluded that appellees had demonstrated a 'high risk of erroneous deprivation' from the process as administered. The Government had also 'failed to demonstrate that it would suffer any harm if the statutory fee limitation . . . were lifted.' The right to 'adequate legal representation' or 'meaningful access to courts,' was infringed by the fee limitation without any substantial justification by the Government. The court entered a preliminary injunction.