United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
November 17, 1999
WILLIAM S. HALL, CLAIMANT-APPELLANT,
TOGO D. WEST, JR., SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.
Before Michel, Circuit Judge, Skelton, Senior Circuit Judge, and Schall,
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam.
William S. Hall appeals from the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims *fn1 in Hall v. West, No. 97-1516 (Feb. 9, 1999) (mem.). The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims affirmed the decision of the Board of Veterans' Appeals (the "BVA"), which denied Mr. Hall's claim for the restoration of full Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA") compensation benefits, because 38 U.S.C. § 5313(a) (1994) limits compensation benefits to veterans incarcerated as a result of a felony conviction, as is Mr. Hall. Because Mr. Hall has not demonstrated a violation of his constitutional rights or otherwise shown reversible error in the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims' decision, we affirm.
Mr. Hall was convicted of a felony in August of 1991 and is serving a ten-year sentence. He received VA compensation benefits prior to his incarceration, but in accordance with 38 U.S.C. § 5313(a) (1994) *fn2 and its implementing regulation, 38 C.F.R. § 3.665 (1998), *fn3 the VA reduced the amount of benefits Mr. Hall received beginning on the sixty-first day of his incarceration as is required by the statute and regulation.
Mr. Hall baldly contends that the statute and regulation violate the provisions of the United States Constitution that prohibit impairment of the obligation of contracts, illegal searches and seizures, bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, cruel and unusual punishment, double jeopardy, excessive fines, and deprivation of life, liberty and property without due process or equal protection of laws. Because he raised these same claims before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and challenges its decision on constitutional grounds, this court has jurisdiction of the appeal. See 38 U.S.C. § 7292(d)(1)(B) (1994).
In support of his impairment of the obligation of contracts claim, Mr. Hall argues that the government has a contractual obligation to pay compensation for injuries incident to military service. However, the Supreme Court has stated that the grant of compensation allowances creates no vested right and that they may be "redistributed or withdrawn at any time in the discretion of Congress." Lynch v. United States, 292 U.S. 571, 576 (1934). Therefore, the government is not contractually obligated to furnish VA benefits, and does not impair an obligation of contract in suspending or reducing them.
Moreover, since Mr. Hall did not have a vested right to receive VA benefits, the reduction of his benefits does not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of illegal searches and seizures. See United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984) (seizure of property occurs when there is some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in that property).
The prohibitions against bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, cruel and unusual punishment, double jeopardy and excessive fines are all directed toward the illegal imposition of punishment by the government. See Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 613 (1960) (to show that an act is an ex post facto law or a bill of attainder, the act must be validly characterized as punishment in the constitutional sense); Hudson v. United States, 522 U.S. 93, 99 (1997) (double jeopardy clause protects against imposition of multiple criminal punishments); and Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602, 609-10 (1993) (excessive fines clause limits the government's power to extract payments as punishment for offense). However, the suspension of a non-contractual benefit cannot be considered a punishment. See Lynch, 292 U.S. at 576; see also Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 617 (1960) (the sanction of the mere denial of a non-contractual benefit without more did not evidence a congressional intent to punish). Since withdrawing VA benefits does not constitute punishment, the instant statute and its implementing regulation are not illegal bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, cruel and unusual punishment, double jeopardy or excessive fines.
Mr. Hall contends that the reduction of his VA benefits constitutes a denial of due process. Due process requires that a deprivation of property be preceded by notice and an opportunity for hearing appropriate to the nature of the case. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 542 (1985). Mr. Hall does not contend that VA denied him any of the process rights to which he was entitled pursuant to VA regulations. Under those regulations, Mr. Hall had the right to written notice of the VA's decision with a sixty-day period in which to submit evidence, the right to a hearing, and the right to representation. See 38 C.F.R. §§ 3.103(a), 3.103(b)(2) (1998). Even assuming, arguendo, that Mr. Hall had a protected property interest in VA benefits, the notice and hearing rights afforded him met the constitutional requirement of procedural due process. See also Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 343 (1976) (something less than an evidentiary hearing is sufficient prior to the termination of social security disability benefits to meet due process requirements).
Lastly, Mr. Hall alleges that the statute and regulation violate the constitutional requirement of equal protection. Though he urges this court to apply the strict scrutiny standard of review, he does not argue, nor is there support for, the proposition that incarcerated veterans compose a patently arbitrary, or suspect, classification. See generally Moss v. Clark, 886 F.2d 686, 690 (4th Cir. 1989) (prisoners are not a suspect class because the status of incarceration is neither an immutable characteristic, nor an invidious basis of classification). When Congress legislates in the area of benefit distribution, review by the courts generally is limited to determining whether there is a rational basis for the legislation. See Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 611 (1960). ("Particularly when we deal with a withholding of a non-contractual benefit under a social welfare program . . . we must recognize that the due process clause can be thought to interpose a bar only if the statute manifests a patently arbitrary classification, utterly lacking in rational justification.").
The statute and its implementing regulation are rationally related to the legitimate government interest in preventing prisoners, who are supported by tax dollars, from receiving additional tax dollars in the form of VA benefits. The purpose of VA benefits is to help disabled veterans maintain a standard of living compromised by a service-connected disability. These benefits cannot serve their intended purpose when the veteran recipient is incarcerated because a minimum standard of living is provided, free, to prisoners. Mr. Hall has failed to establish that the legislation involved here does not bear any rational relationship to a legitimate government interest. Thus, the government did not violate the Constitution's requirement for equal protection of laws in reducing Mr. Hall's VA benefits.