Ryan Chiao, Senior Photographer

A Connecticut federal district judge approved a preliminary settlement assuring the reevaluation of discharge statuses for United States Navy and Marine corps veterans. 

Last week, the Yale Law School Veterans’ Legal Services Clinic obtained a major victory in the ongoing nationwide class action suit “Manker v. Del Toro, which seeks to secure status reevaluations for Navy and Marine corps veterans discharged for “other-than-honorable” reasons attributable to underlying health conditions. A Connecticut federal district judge approved a preliminary settlement in the class action suit  — allowing the suit to advance to a final hearing, which is set to take place on December 16. 

The case was originally filed in March 2018 on behalf of thousands of less-than-honorably discharged Army, Navy and Marine Corps veterans who suffer from trauma-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The Law School clinic obtained a victory in its case against the Army last April. 

“The settlement, if finally approved by the court, will give thousands of wrongfully discharged veterans experiencing PTSD, TBI and other mental health conditions the dignity, respect and benefits they deserve,” Brandon Baum LAW ’23 said. 

The victory means that the Department of the Navy has agreed to review discharges of Afghanistan and Iraq-era naval and Marine Corps veterans who were affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury (TBI), military sexual trauma and other behavioral and mental health conditions. The Navy will reconsider status-upgrade decisions that were made by the Naval Discharge Review Board, or NDRB, between March 2012 and the date of settlement, according to court documents. 

The documents also stipulate that the settlement will require that the NDRB expand reapplication rights for applicants who received unfavorable board decisions between October 2001 and March 2012 and make available video-teleconferencing hearings for all applicants who request it. In addition to this, the settlement assures that the defendant will implement an online application portal and submission process for the NDRB and conduct annual training for its staff members in order to handle special cases. 

The case is spearheaded by second year Yale Law School students Baum and Amelia Dunnell LAW ’23, who both work under professor and Veterans’ Legal Services Clinic Director Michael Wishnie ’87 LAW ’93. 

“Many veterans enter the military under the assumption that they are going to receive certain benefits after they finish their service, but developed conditions of mental health that ultimately rendered them incapable of accessing those services,” Dunnel said. 

The lawsuit, which was originally filed in March 2018, alleged that, since the start of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy and Marine Corps discharged thousands of naval and marine corps officers with other-than-honorable statuses due to malpractices which can be attributed to mental and behavioral conditions — also known as “bad paper” discharges. 

The preliminary approval marks a significant milestone in the class action suit and adds to the momentum of the various approvals and settlements that the clinic has obtained. The settlement follows a similar victory obtained in November 2020 in which Army veterans were able to review “bad paper” discharges and receive similar chances for status changes. 

“What we’re looking at here is a case of the military and the military justice system, which is very old and ingrained, just catching up with what we know to be true medically and ethically about soldiers,” board member of the Yale Veterans Association Adrian Bonenberger ’02 told the news last November.

Baum and Dunnell told the Connecticut Law Tribune that an important driving force behind the suit is that veterans with other-than-honorable discharges are more likely to experience homelessness and other adverse consequences. 

The settlement, which requires the Navy to implement a video-teleconference personal appearance hearing program, gives the opportunity for applicants to participate from their personal homes or any location of their choice, according to the class notice.

“We also want to make sure that homeless veterans who are involved in the criminal legal system are getting the benefits that we believe they’re completely entitled to that might make life a little bit easier on a daily basis,” Dunnel told the Connecticut Law Tribune. 

Following the approval of the settlement, class members will have until Nov. 25 to put forward their objections before the final hearing on December 16, when a United States district judge will approve or deny the approval of the settlement. 

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic was established in 2010.