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VA Lawsuit No-Go; Decision To Be Appealed

CBS News Investigative producer Pia Malbran wrote this story for

Lawyers representing two veteran rights advocate groups are preparing to file an appeal against a judge's decision to not intervene in the way the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) functions.

"We think that legally [the judge] got it wrong," said attorney Heather Moser. "Anyone should have the right to sue a federal agency when it is not complying with the Constitution without having to jump through additional hoops."

The non-profit groups Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Truth sued the VA claiming the agency, charged with taking care of US military veterans, is not properly processing health claims and not fully addressing the mental health needs of vets especially when it comes to suicide. The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco federal court as a pro bono case led by the law firm Morrison & Forester, did not ask for any money but rather that a judge step in and force the VA to better fulfill its federal responsibilities.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti allowed the case to go to trial and held almost three weeks of court hearings earlier this year. On Wednesday, Judge Conti announced his decision in the case.

"The VA may not be meeting all of the needs of the nation's veterans," Judge Conti said in an 82-page ruling. But, the ability to do anything about it is "beyond the power of this court." Instead he noted that the authority rests in the hands of Congress and the VA's Secretary. Judge Conti said he found "no systemic violations system-wide that would compel district court" to take action. (Click here to read the entire ruling.)

VA spokesperson Alison Aikele told CBS News that the agency is "pleased with the judge's ruling."

Congressman Jerry McNerney, a Democratic from California who serves on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs expressed disappointment with the decision. In a statement he said "our returning heroes have sacrificed for our country and they deserve far better from the agency charged with their care." He vowed "if Judge Conti is unwilling to order the VA to overhaul its delivery of mental health care, I am."

During the trial, several questionable acts by top VA officials were exposed. For example, a series of internal emails revealed that critical suicide information had been purposely withheld from the public. The emails were generated preliminary as a result of correspondence between the VA and CBS News.

In one instance, CBS was working on a story about attempted suicide by VA patients. The CBS Investigative Unit sent an email to the VA titled "CBS News Interview Request" asking to speak with someone on-camera about the issue. Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's head of mental health, replied to the email privately to his media advisor and changed the subject line to "Not for the CBS News Interview Request." He then wrote the phrase "Shh!" and admitted that the number of attempted suicides by VA patients was significantly higher than any data Dr. Katz had authorized to be released to CBS. Dr. Katz later apologized for the email to Congress saying his choice of words was poor.

While Judge Conti did not address Dr. Katz's email in his ruling, he did confirm that veteran suicide rates are "approximately 3.2 times higher than the general population." Judge Conti also agreed with several of the findings presented in court like some of the enormous delays in processing veteran claims. It has taken some veterans an average of more than 4 years to fight a rejected benefit claim.

By Pia Malbran