News and HeadlinesWRTV Investigates

Actions

Judge sides with Hamilton County in lawsuit against Indiana DVA director

The judge’s ruling says the IDVA director holds a statutory responsibility to supervise County Veteran Service Officers (VSOs).
IDVAOffice.JPG
Posted at 9:10 AM, May 20, 2024

HAMILTON COUNTY — A judge has ruled in favor of Hamilton County in its lawsuit filed against Dennis Wimer, the director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs.

The lawsuit, filed in October 2022, alleged Wimer failed to properly train and supervise the former Hamilton County Veteran Service Officer (VSO).

It’s an update to a story WRTV Investigates first brought you in 2022 that revealed veteran claims for benefits were never even filed — resulting in hundreds of veterans missing thousands of dollars in benefits.

WATCH | Veteran calls for accountability and transparency over thousands of dollars in missing benefits

Veteran calls for accountability and transparency over thousands of dollars in missing benefits

Hamilton County is home to more than 13,300 veterans.

The judge’s ruling, handed down on May 17, says the IDVA director holds a statutory responsibility to supervise County Veteran Service Officers (VSOs).

IDVAOffice.JPG

PREVIOUS | Veterans call for accountability over missing benefits

Hamilton County’s former VSO, Lynn Epperson, was appointed in 2014 by the Hamilton County Commissioners and removed from office in December 2019 “due to ongoing performance issues,” read the complaint.

After Epperson left, the county discovered she had failed to timely submit claims seeking monthly disability benefits for many veterans.

“As a result, the benefits (including retroactive benefits) for hundreds of veterans have been lost,” read the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged employees left files with Epperson that required urgent action, only to discover after Epperson’s termination that Epperson never took any action on many claims.

Hamilton County filed a complaint against Dennis Wimer, the director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, alleging Wimer failed to properly train and supervise the former Hamilton County Veteran Service Officer (VSO).
Hamilton County filed a complaint against Dennis Wimer, the director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, alleging Wimer failed to properly train and supervise the former Hamilton County Veteran Service Officer (VSO).

The court’s findings emphasize that while VSOs are county employees, their supervision is a statutory duty of the state’s Director of Veterans Affairs, as mandated by Indiana Code.

It's not clear if Hamilton County has notified veterans about problems involving their benefits.

WRTV Investigates has asked Hamilton County several questions including:

  • Have the veterans been notified, and how?
  • How much money has not been allocated to veterans?
  • What being done to get them their money? Is there any other entity that is responsible for making these veterans whole?

“Hamilton County remains committed to advocating for its veterans and ensuring they receive the benefits and support they deserve,” read a statement from Hamilton County in response to the ruling. “The County will continue to work closely with the IDVA to implement the court’s decision and enhance the services provided to its veteran community.”
Hamilton County Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt applauded the judge’s ruling in favor of Hamilton County.

Mark Heirbrandt_HighRes_Headshot_2022.jpg

“This decision is vital for our veterans who rely on competent and timely assistance to receive their benefits,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt. “This ruling ensures we can better support the heroes who have served our country. It is a step forward in providing the accountability and oversight necessary to prevent any future lapses in service that could negatively impact our veterans' lives."

WRTV Investigates contacted IDVA for a response from the agency and Dennis Wimer.

 

“The Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) firmly believes that the trial court erred in its ruling. We are currently working with the Indiana Attorney General’s Office concerning an appeal. 

 

IDVA is encouraged by the previous support given by the Indiana Veteran Service Officer Association. They are the membership organization for all County Veteran Service Officers in Indiana. The association disagrees with the court’s ruling. We appreciate their continuing support. 

 

It is unfortunate Hamilton County did not timely notify IDVA of the problems its county veteran service office and its county employee, who was serving in the role of County Veteran Service Officer before they fired her, were having and their initial resistance to IDVA’s offer of assistance. 

 

All Hamilton County veteran claims that may have been impacted were submitted to the US Department of Veterans Affairs in 2020. All have been fully evaluated and decided. Claimants who need additional help can contact IDVA, a Veteran Service Organization, or their local County Veteran Service Officer.”


 

All Hamilton County veteran claims that may have been impacted were submitted to the US Department of Veterans Affairs in 2020. All have been fully evaluated and decided. Claimants who need additional help can contact IDVA, a Veteran Service Organization, or their local County Veteran Service Officer.”

Hamilton County alleged in its lawsuit Epperson’s delay in filing claims resulted in veterans losing a “substantial amount of retroactive payments.”

“Numerous doctor’s offices confirmed they had faxed veterans’ medical records to the office, but Epperson had not placed the records in the veterans’ files,” read the lawsuit. “Epperson lied to employees about the status of claims, and as a result, office employees would unknowingly provide false information to veterans regarding their claims.”

Concerned about Epperson’s performance, the county reviewed open files from August 2018 to July 2019 to see if tasks were completed.

As of September 2019, it reviewed 218 files and of those, 180 claims had either not been filed correctly or not filed at all.

“This was a significant failure on Epperson’s part, which put hundreds of veterans at risk of losing their benefits,” read the lawsuit.

Hamilton County says it has repeatedly asked the state for help in remedying the issues involving Epperson, but claim the state refused to do so, claiming it had no responsibility over the VSO’s employment.

“To date, the state has not agreed to cooperate,” read the lawsuit.

IDVA DIRECTOR2.JPG
Dennis Wimer is the new director of the Indiana Department of Veterans' Affairs.

WRTV Investigates reached out to IDVA in 2022, who disagreed with the county’s claim they are supposed to oversee County Veteran Service Officers.

Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs Statement:

“IDVA denies the claims made by Hamilton County. The statute cited in the lawsuit has never been interpreted the way Hamilton County prefers. Counties, not the state, have the responsibility for hiring, supervising, evaluating, giving pay raises, and, if needed, firing employees who work in their county veterans offices. Hamilton County discovered problems three years ago, and IDVA went above and beyond to help. IDVA works to support, serve, and advocate for the Indiana veteran community, and it is unfortunate that some veterans’ lives could be adversely affected by the problems that occurred in the veterans office of Hamilton County. “ 

In 2022, WRTV received the following statement on behalf of the Hamilton County Commissioners.

“The Board of Hamilton County Commissioners is committed to the health and well-being of the men and women who have served our country and welcome an objective solution to the problem at hand, so our veterans can collect the benefits they are due.

We have been in discussion with the Indiana Department of Veteran Affairs for nearly two years in an attempt to address issues caused by a Hamilton County Veteran Service Officer’s (CVSO) handling of claims. Unfortunately, we have been unable to come to a consensus on how the issue should be resolved.

This lawsuit is seeking clarity as to which entity, the State or the County, is responsible for the training, supervision and evaluation of the VSO under the governing statutes. From the County’s perspective, I.C. 10-17-1-9 clearly states the State is responsible for the training, supervision, and evaluation of the VSO. Specifically, I.C. 10-17-1-9(c)(3) states the VSO shall “. . . serve under the supervision of the State director of veteran’s affairs.” Additionally, I.C. 10-17-1-9(e) provides more clarity stating, “a rule contrary to subsection (c) or (d) is void.” It is our hope that a determination of this question will allow the parties to proceed together in finding a solution for our veterans.”

RELATED | State helping more veterans and their families under new law

A County Veterans Service Office is tasked with helping veterans apply for and obtain benefits in several categories including burial, education and training, health care, home loans, life insurance, pension and vocational rehabilitation and employment.

WRTV reached out to Lynn Epperson for comment, and we are still waiting to hear back.

She has not been criminally charged nor is she named as a defendant in Hamilton County’s lawsuit against Dennis Wimer.

PREVIOUS | Veterans, advocates allege state is misusing relief money generated from veteran license plates | Veterans upset about state’s proposal to dip into military license plate revenue | Veterans at odds over how to help needy vets