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Ibrahim v. United States Department of Veteran Affairs

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 29, 2019

JAMEEL IBRAHIM, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, et al.,, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The plaintiff, Mr. Ibrahim, served our country in the U.S. Navy from 1980-82. In 2012, he submitted a service-related claim to the United States Department of Veterans' Affairs (the "VA") based on a laceration and smashed phalanx.[1] The VA found that 0% of the injury was service-related and denied benefits.

         On June 1, 2018, Mr. Ibrahim filed this action against the VA and several of its employees. He seeks the benefits that were denied, alleges that he was denied due process, and asserts claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), and the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C § 500 et seq. This matter comes before the court upon the motion of die plaintiff for a default judgment (DE 21) and the motion of the defendants to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction (DE 16).

         A. Plaintiffs Motion for Default Judgment

         The plaintiffs motion for entry of a default judgment must be denied. To begin with, there has been no clerk's entry of default, which is a prerequisite for such a motion. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 55(a). Given the plaintiffs pro se status, however, I look past that defect and consider whether there has been a default.

         The complaint was served on the United States Attorney's Office on October 25, 2018. (DE 20 p.2; acknowledgement of service by receptionist).[2]Because the action is one filed against the United States, die deadline to answer was "60 days after service ... on die United States Attorney . . . ." Fed.R.Civ.P. l2(a)(2). The defense of lack of jurisdiction may be asserted in an answer, but at the defendant's option it may instead be asserted by a motion "made before pleading if a responsive pleading is allowed." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b). Here, the United States has exercised the option to proceed by motion. On December 19, 2018, within the 60-day deadline to answer, die defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1).

         The United States has not defaulted, but has timely responded to the complaint via a Rule 12(b) motion. Neither entry of default nor a default judgment is warranted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 55. The plaintiffs motion for a default judgment is therefore denied.

         B. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction

         I next consider the motion of the United States and the otiier defendants to dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction. (DE 16) The jurisdiction of this Court must be assessed against the background of die principle that the United States can be sued only to die extent it has waived its sovereign immunity. See FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 484, 114 S.Ct. 996 (1994).

         The United States persuasively argues that, by statutory decree, this Court lacks jurisdiction over claims relating to VA benefits. That is not to say that there is no remedy for a veteran who is denied benefits. It is just to say that Mr. Ibrahim is in the wrong court.

         As the government points out, Mr. Ibrahim's claim for benefits based on his injuries is governed by a specialized statutory scheme under the Veterans' Judicial Review Act ("VJRA"). Under the VJRA, the VA's decisions as to questions of law and fact in relation to benefits determinations are final and unreviewable. 38 U.S.C § 511;[3] Dambach v. United States, 211 Fed.Appx. 105, 108 (3d Cir. 2006). An adverse benefits decision, like the one here, is not reviewable "by any court, whether by an action in the nature of mandamus or otherwise." 38 U.S.C. § 511(a). The courts have therefore dismissed attempts to obtain district court review, whether by means of a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the APA, or otherwise. See Dambach, supra (VJRA bars FTCA claim that, through negligence, a veteran's claims were wrongfully denied for many years until finally granted); Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki, 678 F.3d 1013 (9th Cir. 2012) (VJRA bars claim under APA that delays in processing claims were unreasonable); Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Ass'n, Inc. v. McDonald, 830 F.3d 570 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (VJRA bars challenge under APA to VA policy of denying presumption of Agent Orange exposure to blue-water Navy veterans).

         Mr. Ibrahim is not without recourse, however. A veteran denied benefits may obtain review via a three-part, statutorily-defined review process, which I will refer to as the "VJRA Appeal Procedure." First, the veteran must file a notice of disagreement with the Board of Veterans Appeals. See 38 U.S.C. § 7104(a). Second, as to appeals from decisions of the Board, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has exclusive jurisdiction. See 38 U.S.C. §§ 7252(a), 7266(a). Third, any appeal from that court may be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. See 38 U.S.C. § 7292(a). See generally Jayme v. United States, Civ. No. 10-3248, 2011 WL 4412431, at *2 (D.N.J. Sept. 21, 2011) (overview of procedure). That VJRA Appeal Procedure is the sole and exclusive means of review of an adverse benefits determination.

         So far, the plaintiff does not really disagree. He seems to draw a distinction, however, between his claim for benefits, which should be heard via the VJRA Appeal Procedure, and his claim that he was deprived of due process, which he says should be heard in this Court. [See PI. Responding Brf. 3, DE 18. ("I am objecting to the defense dismissal of this case, and I can be partial to a part of this matter to be referred to the United States Court of Appeal for Veteran Claims and move forward on the Deprivation of Rights by employees and agents of the Department of Veteran Affairs."))

         I therefore consider whether the plaintiffs claim of denial of due process sets forth a distinct claim that is not within the scope of the VJRA's bar to this court's jurisdiction. As to that issue, I am aided by the analysis of Veterans forCommon Sense v. Shinseki, 678 F.3d 1013 (9th Cir. 2012) (en banc). Veteransfor Common Sense emphasizes that the scope of the VJRA's exclusion is ...


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