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Sorrell v. United States Department of Veterans Affairs

United States District Court, D. Arizona

April 14, 2017

Lonnie Sorrell, Plaintiff,
Department of Veterans Affairs, Defendant.



         This action arises out of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) denial of Plaintiff's administrative claim for disability benefits and medical malpractice claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Before the Court is the VA's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for a more definite statement of any remaining claim. (Doc. 10.) The motion is fully briefed and neither party requested oral argument. (Docs. 13, 15.) For reasons stated below, the motion is granted.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff has been diagnosed by non-VA physicians with carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger fingers. A VA medical practitioner examined Plaintiff in September 2013. The VA thereafter determined that his impairments were not service related and denied his claim for disability benefits. In March 2015, Plaintiff filed an administrative tort claim seeking $800, 000 in damages, which the VA denied six months later. Plaintiff's request for reconsideration was denied in January 2017.

         Plaintiff filed a state court action for medical malpractice against the VA in July 2015, which was removed to this Court several months later. See Sorrell v. Dep't of VA, No. CV-16-00293-PHX-DLR (D. Ariz. Feb. 1, 2016). The Court dismissed the case because the state court never had jurisdiction given that tort claims against the United States must be brought in federal court in the first instance. Id. Plaintiff then commenced the present suit on November 3, 2016. (Doc. 1.)

         II. Discussion

         The VA argues that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over any challenge to the handling and denial of Plaintiff's administrative claim for disability benefits because the Veteran's Judicial Review Act of 1988 (VJRA) stripped district courts of jurisdiction over such claims. (Doc. 10 at 6-8.) With respect to Plaintiff's medical malpractice claim, the VA contends that it is impermissibly vague and requests a more definite statement of the claim. (Id. at 8-10.) The VA also requests that Plaintiff be ordered to comply with A.R.S. § 12-2603, which requires a preliminary expert opinion on the applicable standard of care, liability, and causation. (Id. at 10-11.)

         A. Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction

         It is axiomatic that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and “possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute[.]” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). “It is to be presumed that a cause of action lies outside the limited jurisdiction of the federal courts and the burden of establishing the contrary rests upon the party asserting jurisdiction.” Hunter v. Phillip Morris USA, 582 F.3d 1039, 1042 (9th Cir. 2009). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), dismissal is proper when subject matter jurisdiction is lacking. See Amfac Mortg. Corp. v. Ariz. Mall of Tempe, Inc., 583 F.2d 426, 431 n.5 (9th Cir. 1978).

         The VA is correct that the Court lacks jurisdiction over any challenge to the VA's denial of benefits. The VJRA expressly provides that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs “shall decide all questions of law and fact necessary to a decision by the Secretary under a law that affects the provision of benefits by the Secretary to veterans or the dependents or survivors of veterans.” 38 U.S.C. § 511(a). The Secretary's decision “shall be final and conclusive and may not be reviewed by any other official or by any court[.]” 38 U.S.C. § 511(b). Consistent with these statutory directives, this Circuit recently affirmed that district courts are without authority to review the VA's benefits decisions. Recinto v. U.S. Dep't of VA, 706 F.3d 1171, 1175 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki, 678 F.3d 1013, 1022-25 (9th Cir. 2012) (en banc)). Stated differently, if reviewing the plaintiff's claim “would require review of the circumstances of individual benefits requests, jurisdiction is lacking.” Id.

         The complaint in this case purports to assert a medical malpractice claim, but in the request for relief Plaintiff explicitly seeks a VA disability rating of 100% and retroactive benefit payments. (Doc. 1 at 7.) Plaintiff does not dispute that resolution of the medical malpractice claim, as pled in the complaint, necessarily would require “review of the circumstances of [his] individual benefits request.” Recinto, 706 F.3d at 1175. Indeed, Plaintiff makes clear in his response that the “tort claim is inextricably intertwined with the denial of VA disability benefits” and that the alleged medical malpractice relates to both the tort claim and the request for benefits. (Doc. 13 at 1.)

         Under the VJRA, however, the Secretary “decides all issues of fact or law affecting the provision of benefits to veterans, including reviewing the VA's benefits determinations.” Sheppard v. United States, No. CV-15-00574-PHX-DJH, 2015 WL 12658461, at *2 (D. Ariz. Aug. 3, 2015). The Court, therefore, cannot review the facts or law upon which the VA based its decision to deny disability benefits to Plaintiff “because such a review is exclusively within the province of the [Secretary].” Id. Plaintiff's complaint is dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction to the extent it seeks review of the circumstances surrounding the VA's decision to deny disability benefits. See Id. (dismissing claim for lack of jurisdiction where the plaintiff was “alleging violations committed by the VA in the handling of his benefits”); Haas v. Oregon Health & Science Univ., No. CV-13-01290-PHX-GMS, 2014 WL 900726, at *2 (D. Ariz. Mar. 7, 2014) (dismissing complaint against the VA for denying an organ transplant request where it “would entail the review of both the facts of [the] case and the law relating to the VA's treatment decision”); Wright v. United States, No. 14-cv-03008-CRB, 2015 WL 1205263, at *3 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 16, 2015) (finding the absence of subject matter jurisdiction over “claims regarding [the plaintiff's] benefits and her VA medical care and records that relate to her VA benefits or benefits decisions”); Lietz v. United States, No. 14-cv-00483-EJL-REB, 2016 WL 6871284, at *4 (D. Idaho Feb. 15, 2016) (explaining that “the Ninth Circuit determined in no uncertain terms that the VJRA and § 511 applied to divest federal district courts of jurisdiction to consider a veteran's claim of unreasonable delays in health care and disability compensation”).

         B. Motion for a More Definite Statement

         Where the complaint is so vague or ambiguous that a response cannot reasonably be prepared, “the defendant may move for an order under Rule 12(e) requiring a more definite statement by pointing out ‘the defects complained of and the details desired.'” Bautista v. Cnty. of L.A., 216 F.3d 837, 843 n.1 (9th Cir. 2000). The VA moves for a more definite statement with respect to any medical malpractice claim asserted under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Having reviewed the ...

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