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Veteran Now Goes to Battle Against VA

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Clyde Shideler, a 16-year veteran of the Air Force, has a beef with the Veterans Administration--and he’d hoped not to make a federal case out of it.

On Wednesday he took the VA to small claims court in San Diego.

Shideler, a 53-year-old Oceanside resident, thought it would be a novel way of forcing the VA to pay him a disability pension he feels he is due.

Shideler has argued for years that he is 100% disabled from an arterial defect at the base of his brain--a condition aggravated by job stress during his years as a bombing navigation instructor in the Air Force prior to his retirement in 1969. He says he is blind, suffers from seizures and other maladies, and was given improper medication by VA doctors that worsened his condition.

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An ordained Baptist minister, he hasn’t done much preaching in recent years. Today he is unemployable, Shideler said. The Social Security Administration has determined he is 100% disabled, Shideler said, and he is receiving the maximum disability payments from that agency to augment his wife’s salary as a civilian computer assistant at Camp Pendleton. The state Department of Motor Vehicles has also determined Shideler is 100% disabled. In fact, he said, a different office in the VA also concluded he is 100% disabled, at least for purposes of paying his government life insurance.

But the powers that be in the disability rating office of the VA have told him he is only 30% disabled--and thus not qualified for a disability retirement. (VA officials are prohibited by law from discussing specific cases and declined to comment on Shideler’s.)

Shideler said he would have hired an attorney to argue his case were it not for a federal law dating to post-Civil War days that prohibits an attorney from accepting more than $10 in representing a veteran in an action against the VA.

The purpose of the law, a VA staff attorney said, is to discourage disability-related claims against the VA from becoming too adversarial through argumentative attorneys. The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the $10 law, said the attorney, who asked not to be identified by name.

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The problem is, said Shideler, he hasn’t found an attorney willing to work for 10 bucks.

So the idea struck him a few months ago to take the VA to court. The maximum monetary judgment in small claims court is $1,500, and the 100% disability payment would come to $1,465 a month. Shideler said he would simply take the VA to small claims court every month “until someone got tired of it and we settled this once and for all.”

Each claim would cost him $9 to file. He figured it was worth a try.

On Wednesday, Shideler’s strategy fell to pieces.

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For a few minutes, he thought he just might have won his case. No one from the VA was in the courtroom when the bailiff announced that everyone waiting for their cases to be heard appeared to have won by default since no one was present to contest their claims.

“If you can show me your claim is fair and just, I’ll be glad to award it to you,” Judge Pro Tem Jerome Veron announced to half a dozen people in the courtroom, putting smiles on everyone’s faces.

“This is almost too good to be true,” Loretta Shideler, the vet’s wife, whispered from the back row. “I wonder if the other shoe is going to drop.”

Kaplunk.

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Shideler’s case was called and he moved forward. Veron looked at the case file.

“I would like to help you out, but I cannot,” Veron told the Shidelers.

Then he noted that the U.S. attorney’s office, on behalf of the VA, had filed court papers to have the case transferred to U.S. District Court in San Diego. Federal supremacy laws and all that, Veron dutifully explained.

So, Shideler said outside the courtroom, he’ll take up his case there, in federal court.

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But not for long.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Nita Stormes said a federal statute specifically bans courts from resolving disputes between the VA and veterans over their disability claims. Short of constitutional questions that can be appealed in court, the VA has the final word in deciding whether, and to what degree, a veteran is disabled and eligible for payments. There is no appeal of those findings, she said. Period.

Moreover, Stormes said it appeared to her that Shideler had not yet exhausted all of his administrative remedies within the VA itself. Shideler said he has. Another VA official noted that Shideler could turn to a veterans assistance group for help. Shideler said he has, but “they forgot to show up the day of my hearing.”

Stormes said Shideler’s case is scheduled to be heard before U.S. District Judge Judith Keep on July 11, when she’ll move that it be dismissed altogether.

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The Shidelers said they’ll continue their efforts for a pension.

“You know,” Loretta Shideler said in the hallway, “we tried to get one of our kids to be an attorney . . . “


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