By NICK RUMMELL
MANHATTAN (CN) - The Department of Veterans Affairs did not violate civil rights by rejecting a call to improve how it handles reports of sexual abuse in the military, a divided Federal Circuit ruled.
Writing for the majority, Judge Todd Hughes found the agency did not violate women's rights when it denied a petition by two leading veterans groups who wanted the agency to update how it processes disability claims involving sexual trauma during military service.
Sexual trauma - a phrase that applies to repercussions of everything from repeated sexual harassment or actual assault - has been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety in some cases.
The department states on its web site that all treatment for physical and mental conditions related to sexual trauma is provided free of charge.
Nearly 30,000 disability claims were filed with the agency from 2008 to 2013, the overwhelming majority of which were due to sexual trauma, court documents stated.
However, veterans groups claim there were significant disparities in how disability claims were adjudicated by the agency, with sexual trauma cases typically requiring a greater burden of proof.
To fix the problem, the Vietnam Veterans of America and Service Women's Action Network, who filed the lawsuit, asked the department to set new rules for how it adjudicated disability claims involving sexual trauma.
The new rules would allow a veteran to claim stress from a sexual trauma if a mental health expert confirmed such a trauma could have caused the stressor.
According to the two groups, sexual trauma was under reported by military personnel, which made corroborating claims that much more difficult.
Further, the groups argued that veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress due to other factors didn't have to present evidence, whereas stress due to sexual trauma required it.
The agency denied the petition for new rules, and the veterans groups appealed, arguing that the denial violated women veterans' constitutional rights.
According to the agency's own statistics, one in five female veterans and one in 100 male reported sexual abuse while they were in the armed services.
The case was appealed to the Federal Circuit, but a three-judge panel ultimately ruled against the veterans group, 2-1, stating that the department was within its rights to deny the petition because it had reasonably considered the request and had the adequate reasons for denying it.
"Although others may have determined that the petitioners' requested rule is the best way to ensure the accurate, fair, and sensitive adjudication of [sexual trauma]-based PSTD claims, that is not the question before us," Hughes wrote.
Additionally, because men and women both suffer from sexual trauma-related PSTD, Hughes continued, the current rules are gender neutral and, therefore, do not violate women's constitutional rights.
Sexual trauma "is not limited to a specific experience or circumstance, and can unfortunately occur at any place, at any time, and to anyone," he wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Evan Wallach said the agency's denial was not based on seasoned decision-making and that combat-related PTSD is held to a different standard than sexual trauma-related PTSD.
"The lay testimony of the claimant for [sexual trauma]-related PTSD will alone be insufficient to establish the occurrence of a specific stressor, whereas the same testimony alone will be sufficient in the case of other claimants," Wallach wrote.
Wallach closed his dissent by noting it was not too long ago when courts viewed rape allegations with automatic suspicion. "Thankfully, those days are supposed to be behind us, but the [VA's] denial letter provides a reminder of the need to be ever vigilant lest such irrational bias encroach once again into the legal and regulatory sphere," he wrote.