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Veterans’ Lawsuit Inches Forward

Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans’ (MVCV) lawsuit against the County of Maui is still moving forward, according to a federal judge’s order last week. The judge heard further amendments to the veterans’ complaints, allowing some to remain in the case, while others were denied.

“It’s not a decision, but a step forward for the veterans,” said the group’s attorney Suki Halevi.

The date for the jury trial has also been set back to March 28, 2012 from the original date scheduled for this October.

The veterans originally filed suit in September 2010, after nearly five years of delays in obtaining a county building permit to construct a veterans’ center on Molokai. In January of this year, the county filed a motion requesting dismissal of the case. A federal judge ruled against dismissal, and in April, ruled on which complaints could move forward or be amended. In May, in a process separate from the lawsuit, MVCV finally received the permit to build.

Lawyers for both parties say the judge’s recent decisions have no impact on the final outcome of the case – they merely rule the amended complaints have enough legal validity to go to trial. However, Larry Helm, MVCV commander, said the decision “tells me and tells veterans that this is warranted and we have some rights.”

Six complaints are moving forward at this time, according to Halevi. These include First Amendment claims against the county and former Mayor Charmaine Tavares and infliction of emotional distress claimed by Helm and the veterans against Mayor Tavares, former county staff and Maui County.

The veterans may also file a new equal protection complaint, according to Halevi.

The plaintiffs have until July 25 to file a second amended complaint and finalize their arguments, according to the court order. The rescheduling of the trial date, Helm said, resulted from the extensive amendment process their case has gone through.

“An awful lot of original complaint is gone,” said county attorney Jane Lovell. She said normally, cases are finalized by this point in the process, whereas the plaintiffs in this case are still making amendments to their claims.

Efforts to settle the suit out of court were made by both parties, though that process seems to now be at a standstill. Lovell said the county is “always willing to entertain reasonable settlement offers,” while Helm said the county’s settlement offers could be compared to a slice of bread when the veterans asked for a loaf.

Several of the 20 veterans signed as plaintiffs have recently removed their names from the case. Some were for logistical reasons such as off-island residence, according to Helm. Molokai veteran Manny Garcia also withdrew his name, expressing frustration with how the case has been going.

Garcia said he thinks the suit has become more about personal distress than about getting VA services on Molokai.

“[The lawsuit is] about the 600-plus veterans that live on this island and their families not receiving their benefits because of the building being withheld,” said Garcia. He added that while many of the veterans involved have undergone increased emotional stress and PTSD symptoms as a result of the delays, he withdrew his name because he feels the process should have remained focused on the more quantifiable damages from the permitting process itself.

“We will go up to the stand and say how much toll this has taken on the vets,” said Helm. “We’re looking for justice and accountability.”

Despite tight funds — “we’re not going to have enough money,” said Helm — construction of the new veterans center is moving forward in Kaunakakai. Garcia said soil testing is complete and the preparation for laying the cement should begin this week.

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