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Judge Won't Dismiss Homeless Suit Against VA

The American Civil Liberties Union says the homeless seeking permanent shelter at the West Los Angeles campus will have their day in court.

Homeless and disabled veterans who want permanent housing at the Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles medical campus will have their day in court, the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday.

A federal judge has denied the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' motion to toss out an ACLU lawsuit—filed on behalf of four local veterans—that seeks to stop the government from renting space on the sprawling campus to private companies that do not provide health care-related services.

“Judge Otero’s ruling gives homeless veterans their day in court to require the VA to use the West Los Angeles Campus to benefit veterans,” Amos E. Hartson, chief counsel and director of legal services of Inner City Law Center, said in a statement.

Judge James Otero on Friday ruled that the ACLU was right to argue in its June 2011 lawsuit that about one-third of the 387-acre campus is not being used to benefit veterans. Additionally, he said, the veterans weren't given a chance to comment on private land leases before they were executed, as required by law.

"Plaintiffs were not given their procedural rights to comment on the proposed land-use agreements before they were executed, and as a result, land on the [West Los Angeles] campus is being used in ways that do not benefit veterans," Otero wrote in a 41-page ruling.

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Otero, however, did shoot down one of the ACLU's biggest claims: that when the late, the government became a trustee of a charitable trust to benefit veterans.

While Otero agrees that the 1888 land deed "expresses far more than a hope" on the part of Jones and Arcadia that permanent housing would be constructed and permanently maintained on the campus, he said the VA never assumed the role of a trustee.

"No statute authorized the assumption of an enforceable fiduciary duty with respect to the land at the [West Los Angeles] campus, and thus the government cannot be forced to satisfy fiduciary duties it has not assumed," Otero wrote. "While this result may seem shocking, this is the result the law dictates, and Plaintiffs rely on nothing besides their incredulity to suggest otherwise."

Currently, the veterans have limited access to, or are prohibited from accessing, 110 of the 387 acres, the ACLU contends.

There are more than 1,150 beds dedicated to inpatient hospital care or skilled nursing care for elderly veterans, but none are available as permanent supportive housing and are used solely as temporary shelter, the ACLU has said.

The VA has signed 21 land-use agreements with 18 different tenants, including the Brentwood School, Richmark Entertainment, Sodexho Marriot Laundry Services, South Coast Air Quality Management District and Twentieth Century Fox, among other companies and institutions.

The government and the ACLU, as well as private litigants who had signed on to the case, . But talks were futile, the ACLU argued last week in asking the judge to allow them to move forward to trial as soon as June.

"It shames each of us as a society that our government allows those who fought for their country to sleep on the streets while it leases the property deeded for their care to businesses and recreation," Ron Olson, of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, said in a statement.

The VA's media affairs office did not immediately return messages seeking comment for this story.

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