The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and its Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative would like to wish a happy Veterans Day to our soldiers, both past and present. We owe you our thanks, but more than that, we owe you our freedom. As the head of the Civil Rights Division, I am entrusted with enforcing laws that protect the rights of the brave men and women of our nation’s armed forces, and the veterans who have served in the past. Enforcement of these very important federal civil rights laws helps ensure that these men and women can continue to safeguard our freedom.
Our nation’s servicemembers have been tasked with novel and difficult tasks this year. When COVID -19 reached our shores, tens of thousands of members of our National Guard in all 50 states responded to the pandemic. Many of these same servicemembers, as well as thousands of others, were also deployed in response to the public demonstrations in the past months. In March 2020, the Department of Defense issued stop movement orders on domestic and overseas travel for all military personnel and their families. These orders were necessary to slow the spread of the virus and to protect force readiness. Unfortunately, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act did not protect servicemembers who had to terminate their leases in order to comply with these orders. This meant that servicemember-lessees could have been forced to pay rent for a property that they were unable to occupy or to make car payments for a vehicle they were unable to drive due to military orders.
Upon learning about this problem, the Civil Rights Division and its Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative mobilized to work on a solution. Fortunately, on July 20, Congress passed S. 3637, a bill to allow for lease termination based on stop movement orders. On Aug. 14, 2020, President Donald J. Trump signed the bill into law. As a result, servicemembers can rest assured that the law will protect them when stop movement orders related to COVID-19 – or any future local, national or global emergency – require them to terminate their leases.
While we maintain vigilance with respect to the deployments and orders related to COVID-19, we also continue to commit time and resources to protect the rights of servicemembers. The employees of the Department of Justice are proud to serve our nation’s men and women in uniform in this capacity. We at the Civil Rights Division ardently enforce three statutes that protect the rights of service members; the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), and the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA).
The right to vote is among our most fundamental civil rights. Protecting the rights of servicemembers and their families to vote in our nation’s federal elections, whether they are serving here or abroad, is one of our highest priorities. Through the enforcement of the UOCAVA, the department ensures that servicemembers and overseas U.S. citizens have the opportunity to request and receive absentee ballots in time to vote and have their votes counted in federal elections. The department vigilantly monitored nationwide compliance with UOCAVA for all federal elections in the 2020 cycle. In 2020, the department also filed statements of interest in lawsuits in Georgia and Massachusetts to ensure that eligible military and overseas voters would have sufficient time to vote. In each case, the private lawsuits sought modifications to election-related dates, and the department’s briefs explained the importance of the UOCAVA requirement that states transmit absentee ballots no later than 45 days prior to any federal election.
Our Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, in collaboration with U.S. Attorney’s offices nationwide, enforces the SCRA, and has to date obtained over $474 million in remediation to over 120,000 service members whose financial rights were violated. These cases involved unlawful home foreclosures, vehicle repossessions, interest rate reductions, lease terminations, and default judgments. In 2019, the Division obtained a $3 million settlement against a Nissan Motors for repossessing vehicles owned by 113 qualified servicemembers. On Sept. 3, 2020, the division reached a $259,000 settlement with the City of San Antonio, TX to resolve allegations that the city violated the SCRA by auctioning, or otherwise disposing of, cars owned by protected servicemembers without first obtaining court orders.
The division’s Employment Litigation Section, also in collaboration with U.S. Attorney’s offices nationwide, continues to enhance its enforcement of USERRA against private, state, and local government employers, through litigation, facilitated settlements, outreach, and advocacy. Since the division assumed USERRA enforcement authority in 2004, it has filed 105 lawsuits and favorably resolved 193 complaints through consent decrees or private settlements.
The Civil Rights Division also continually looks for new ways to protect the rights of service members, veterans and military family members. For our veterans with disabilities, the division’s Disability Rights Section has focused on outreach to the veteran population about the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensure equal access to all aspects of civic and community life. In recent months, the department resolved complaints from veterans who alleged that, because they use a service animal, they were denied access to restaurants, shops, and healthcare facilities.
America’s service members are willing to fight for us in the face of danger, and at great personal sacrifice especially in times like these.
While servicemembers carry the burdens of this nation, they should not have to worry that the financial sacrifices they are making will result in adverse actions, such as lenders foreclosing on their homes. They should not have to worry about facing employment discrimination due to their service. They should not have to worry about being able to vote while stationed away from home. They should not have to worry about being targeted for fraud and scams. And finally, our veterans should not face discrimination based on physical and mental disabilities.
We at the Department of Justice are committed to using all of the tools in our arsenal to fight for them. The violation of anyone’s civil rights is unacceptable and unlawful, and the Department of Justice will not tolerate any actions that violate the rights of service members or anyone else in our nation.
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