3.8. Claim Backlogs and Delays
It is no secret that VA continues to be plagued by a large backlog of claims. Despite repeated promises and commitments for improvement, VA's backlog has actually grown significantly over the last few years. For example, by VA's own accounting, the Secretary's stated goal of 125 days to reach an initial decision has gone from being met in approximately 2 out of 3 claims to only 1 in 3 claims. Worse yet, the average time for a decision by the Board of Veterans' Appeals is approaching 3 years and the time for a decision to return from an appeal to the Court can be 7 or 8 years.
There is no such thing as a "financial hardship" or "hardship" claim or any other shortcut around the backlog for initial or reopened claims. Despite widespread misinformation, there is little, if anything, that a veteran can do to "speed up" his or her initial or reopened claim at the regional office level. This does not mean that some raters will not take such circumstances into consideration if they know the claimant's situation. But because severe financial circumstances, a terminal illness, or other hardships do not qualify a claimant for any special treatment, a claimant cannot demand such treatment. The only exception is for the claims of veterans that are or on the verge of becoming homeless. In such cases, the Secretary has directed expedited treatment of claims. Even this action is not a legal requirement, only a VA internal priority.
The Board does allow "advancement on the docket" of appeals from claimants that are "seriously ill" or "under severe financial hardship." The Board will also consider motions from veterans over 75 years of age. Whatever the reason, veterans seeking to advance on the Board's docket need to be very specific about why they should be able to do so and submit supporting evidence (such as a doctor's statement or foreclosure notice) because many veterans are ill or are in financial difficulty and everyone cannot be given priority by the Board.
Other than filing a motion for advancement with the Board, attempting to "put pressure" on a VA office, the Board, or the Court is not only a waste of time, it can result in additional delay because the C-file may be removed from the line waiting for decision so that VA can respond to such attempts. This includes Congressional "inquiries," which are often just exchanges of form letters.
There is slightly better news for claims remanded from the Board and the Court. VA is required by law to provide "expeditious treatment" of remanded claims. The Court has made clear that remands must receive higher priority development than other claims. How long VA can take to resolve a remanded claim under the "expeditious treatment" rule is not clear, but claimants can at least point to this requirement in dealing with delays in remanded claims and, if necessary, seek a Court order for VA to make a decision.
In all cases, the best thing a claimant can do is to quickly respond to each VA request with clear and to the point responses do not give VA any reason to delay making a determination.
The Secretary has a statutory obligation to expeditiously process remands from this Court. Thus, not only must the Secretary ensure that he completes the Court-ordered task, he must do so in an expeditious manner. 38 U.S.C. §§ 5109B, 7112. Excessive delays in the processing of remands ordered by the Court cannot help but sap public confidence and impugn the Court's dignity, as from the outside it invariably appears that VA is ignoring the valid mandates of an institution that has express authority over it in matters related to veterans benefits. See Erspamer v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 3 (1990) (discussing delay in administrative action and public confidence).
Furthermore, the Secretary's obligation to process Court remands expeditiously is integral to this Court's jurisdictional authority to remedy unreasonable delays in the processing of veterans' claims. See Vietnam Veterans of America v. Shinseki, 599 F.3d 654, 659660 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (suggesting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims may have exclusive jurisdiction over claims concerning unreasonable delays in processing); see also Ribaudo v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 552, 557 (2007) ("With respect to matters relating to veterans-benefits claims, however, Congress adopted a very different approach to judicial review. A decision of the Board can only be appealed to a single venuethis Court." (citing 38 U.S.C. § 7252(a))). Therefore, failure by the Secretary to comply with his obligation to process Court remands expeditiously, is the same as noncompliance with the remand order itself, even if the Secretary eventually complies with the substance of the order. Harvey v. Shinseki, 24 Vet. App. 284, 288 (2011).
"While there is no absolute definition of what is reasonable time, we know that it may encompass 'months, occasionally a year or two, but not several years or a decade.'" Community Nutrition Institute v. Young, 773 F.2d 1356, 1361 (D.C. Cir. 1985) (quoting MCI Communications Corp. v. FCC, 627 F.2d 322, 340 (D.C. Cir. 1980). Erspamer v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 3, 10 (1990). When delay is alleged as the basis for a petition for writ of mandamus, a clear and indisputable right to the writ does not exist unless the petitioner demonstrates that the alleged delay is so extraordinary, given the demand on and resources of the Secretary, that it is equivalent to an arbitrary refusal to act. Compare Costanza v. West, 12 Vet. App. 133, 134 (1999) (per curiam order) (addressing an 11month delay and finding the petitioner did not demonstrate that he lacked alternative means of relief when he did not undertake to resolve delay prior to filing the petition), with Erspamer v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 3, 11 (1990) (addressing a three-year delay and finding petitioner had no adequate alternative means for relief when she contacted the regional office more than 30 times before filing her petition with the Court).