Law School Case Brief
Walters v. Nat'l Ass'n of Radiation Survivors - 473 U.S. 305, 105 S. Ct. 3180 (1985)
"Due process" is a flexible concept -- that the processes required by the Due Process Clause in U.S. Const. amend. V with respect to the termination of a protected interest will vary depending upon the importance attached to the interest and the particular circumstances under which the deprivation may occur. In defining the process necessary to ensure "fundamental fairness" the court has recognized that the Clause does not require that the procedures used to guard against an erroneous deprivation be so comprehensive as to preclude any possibility of error, and in addition the court has emphasized that the marginal gains from affording an additional procedural safeguard often may be outweighed by the societal cost of providing such a safeguard.
Two veterans organizations, three individual veterans, and a veteran's widow filed an action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging that 38 U.S.C.S. § 3404(c), limiting to $10 the fee that may be paid an attorney or agent who represents a veteran seeking benefits for service-connected death or disability, violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, and the First Amendment, by denying veterans or their survivors any realistic opportunity to obtain legal representation in presenting their claims. The District Court agreed on both of these grounds and entered a nationwide preliminary injunction barring the enforcement of the fee limitation.
Was the $10 fee limit paid to attorney or agent who represented a veteran violated the due process clause?
On appeal, the injunction was reversed. In support of its ruling, the United States Supreme Court held that the lower court erred in its application of the Mathews analysis in assessing due process violations, in that insufficient deference was accorded the legislature's goal of wanting veterans to receive the entirety of their award free from payment to attorneys. Appellees failed to show that the difference in success rate in adjudicating appeals before the Veteran’s Administration with counsel, and the existence of complexity in some cases, was sufficient to warrant a conclusion that the right to retain and compensate an attorney was a necessary element of procedural fairness under the Constitution. It would take an extraordinarily strong showing of probability of error in the VA's present benefits claim procedures -- and the probability that the presence of attorneys would sharply diminish that possibility -- to warrant a holding that the fee limitation denies claimants due process of law. No such showing was made out on the record before the District Court in this case. In light of the Government interests at stake, the evidence before the District Court as to the success rates in claims handled with or without lawyers shows no such great disparity as to warrant the inference that the fee limitation violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
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