Justia Military Law Opinion Summaries

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The case revolves around the tragic death of Tyler Gergler, a recruit in the Marine Corps' Delayed Entry Program. Gergler died in a car accident while driving to a Marine Corps event, despite being ill. His parents, Raynu Clark and Jason R. Gergler, alleged that Sergeant Mitchell Castner, Gergler's recruiter, negligently pressured their son to drive to the event despite his illness, which led to the fatal accident. They argued that since Castner's actions were within the scope of his Marine Corps employment, the Government was liable for their son's death.The case was initially heard in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The Government moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the United States has sovereign immunity for discretionary acts of government agents. They contended that when Castner pressured Gergler to drive, he was acting as Gergler's recruiter, a discretionary function, and thus, sovereign immunity barred the lawsuit. The District Court agreed with the Government's argument and dismissed the case on the grounds that Castner had discretion and was exercising that discretion.The case was then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The court affirmed the District Court's decision, ruling that the United States and its agents enjoy sovereign immunity from suit. The court found that Castner had discretion to urge Gergler to attend the event and that his function of preparing Marine recruits for training was discretionary. The court also rejected the parents' arguments that Castner's conduct was so egregious that it goes beyond policy consideration and that a narrow carve-out for easy precautions should apply. The court concluded that the United States is immune from suit when its agents commit alleged torts within the discretion accorded by their job function, and Sergeant Castner's actions were within his discretionary function of preparing Marine recruits for training. View "Clark v. Secretary United States Navy" on Justia Law

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The case involves two American Airlines pilots, James P. Scanlan and Carla Riner, who sued their employer for failing to pay them and provide certain benefits while they were on short-term military leave. They claimed that the airline violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), which provides employees on military leave the right to receive the same employment benefits as other similarly situated employees. They also claimed that the airline breached their profit-sharing plan by failing to account for imputed earnings during periods of military leave.The District Court granted summary judgment for the airline on all claims. It held that the pilots could not prevail on their USERRA claims because short-term military leave is not comparable to jury-duty or bereavement leave when comparing duration, frequency, control, and purpose. It also concluded that, under Texas law, the profit-sharing plan unambiguously excludes imputed income from periods of military leave.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the judgment for the airline on the breach of contract claim. However, it reversed the judgment for the airline on the USERRA claims, stating that a reasonable jury could find that short-term military leave is comparable to jury-duty leave or bereavement leave based on the three factors mentioned in the implementing regulation, and any other factors it may consider. The case was remanded for further proceedings on the USERRA claims. View "Scanlan v. American Airlines Group Inc." on Justia Law

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The case involves Mark W. Smith, a U.S. Navy veteran, who appealed a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Smith had initially filed a claim for service connection for deep vein thrombosis (DVT) after his discharge from the Navy in 1991. However, his request was denied by the Regional Office of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in 1992, and this denial was affirmed by the Board of Veterans Appeals in 1996. Smith did not appeal this decision, and it became final.In 2012, Smith filed a new claim for service connection for DVT, which was granted by the VA in 2013. In 2016, Smith filed a motion to revise the 1996 Board Decision, alleging that it was tainted by clear and unmistakable error (CUE). He argued that there was sufficient evidence in 1996 to show he had DVT, and thus his claim should have been allowed to proceed with the VA's duty to assist. However, the Board denied his motion, and this denial was affirmed by the Veterans Court.The case was then brought before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Smith argued that the Veterans Court had erred in its interpretation of the CUE standard in 38 C.F.R. § 20.1403, claiming that the court had incorrectly limited CUE-eligible errors to those that would have led to a grant of service connection. However, the Federal Circuit Court disagreed with Smith's interpretation and affirmed the decision of the Veterans Court. The court held that a revision or reversal based on CUE requires an error that, once corrected, alters the merits outcome of a veteran’s claim with absolute clarity. View "SMITH v. MCDONOUGH " on Justia Law

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The case involves Daniel D. Barry, a veteran who appealed a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Barry had argued that the Board of Veterans’ Appeals should have considered his entitlement to multiple special monthly compensation (SMC) increases, rather than just one, under 38 C.F.R. § 3.350(f)(3). The Veterans Court disagreed, interpreting § 3.350(f)(3) to permit only one SMC increase, regardless of how many qualifying disabilities Barry could demonstrate.The Veterans Court had previously remanded the case for further explanation and consideration of potential additional SMC entitlement. The Board then concluded that Barry could not show entitlement to an additional SMC increase under 38 C.F.R. § 3.350(f)(4). Barry appealed this decision to the Veterans Court, arguing that the Board erred by not considering whether he would be entitled to an additional SMC increase under 38 C.F.R. § 3.350(f)(3).The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the decision of the Veterans Court. The court held that § 3.350(f)(3) does not limit how many SMC increases can be provided; instead, it is a mandatory entitlement that can apply multiple times, subject to a statutory cap. The court remanded the case for further proceedings, including the calculation of the number of intermediate-rate SMC increases Barry should receive. View "BARRY v. MCDONOUGH " on Justia Law

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In 2006, veteran Robert Fleming began applying for disability benefits for service-connected injuries. In 2016, he entered into a contingent-fee agreement with James Perciavalle for representation before the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA awarded Fleming past-due benefits in 2017, but ruled that Perciavalle was statutorily barred from receiving fees on the non-SMC portion of the award. The VA found the pre-Act version of 38 U.S.C. § 5904(c)(1) applicable based on the date on which Fleming had filed a particular notice of disagreement with the regional office regarding his PTSD benefits.The Board of Veterans’ Appeals affirmed the fee denial, agreeing with the regional office that the pre-Act version of the fee provision, not the post-Act version, applies here. The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (Veterans Court) affirmed the Board’s decision.The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed and remanded the decision of the Veterans Court. The Federal Circuit concluded that the Veterans Court relied on an incorrect legal standard in determining which version of § 5904(c)(1) applies. The Federal Circuit also concluded that the post-Act version is the applicable one, based on the material facts that are not in dispute. The Federal Circuit found that as long as a notice of disagreement was filed on or after June 20, 2007, in the same “case” in which counsel is seeking fees, the post-Act version of 38 U.S.C. § 5904(c)(1) applies. View "PERCIAVALLE v. MCDONOUGH " on Justia Law

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The case involves four veterans who appealed from judgments of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which dismissed their petitions for writs of mandamus due to lack of jurisdiction. The veterans' disability ratings were reduced, and they sought to have their original ratings continue pending the final resolution of the validity of the reduction. The veterans argued that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) could not lawfully decrease or discontinue their payments until their appeals challenging the reduction were exhausted.The Veterans Court found that there was no basis on which it could issue a writ under the All Writs Act in aid of its jurisdiction. The Veterans Court dismissed the veterans' petitions for lack of jurisdiction. The veterans then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.The Federal Circuit Court affirmed the Veterans Court's decision. The court held that mandamus relief was not available for the veterans under the All Writs Act because there was an adequate remedy by appeal that the veterans had chosen not to invoke. The court concluded that when there is a remedy by appeal, mandamus is unavailable. The court found that the veterans could have requested relief from the VA, and if a decision had been obtained from the Board denying the requested relief, a remedy by appeal would have been available to the veterans. The court also noted that an appeal is available if three conditions are satisfied: a clear and final decision of a legal issue, the resolution of the legal issues adversely affects the party seeking review, and there is a substantial risk that the decision would not survive a remand. The court found that these conditions would have been satisfied if the veterans had appealed the question of their entitlement to interim payments while the merits of their reductions were still pending. View "LOVE v. MCDONOUGH " on Justia Law

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Truman Harry Smith was convicted of felony murder and other charges related to the shooting death of Johnny Crawford. Smith claimed self-defense, stating that he shot Crawford due to fear for his life, and argued that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The jury rejected Smith's defense and he was sentenced to life in prison plus five years for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Smith appealed, contending that the trial court should have allowed him to testify about his PTSD diagnosis and should not have permitted the State to impeach him with a prior military charge.The trial court had denied Smith's motion for a new trial, and the Supreme Court of Georgia granted Smith's application for interlocutory appeal. Smith argued that his PTSD diagnosis should have been admissible under a hearsay exception for statements made for the purpose of medical diagnosis. However, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that this exception does not apply to medical diagnoses themselves, but to statements patients make to medical professionals to aid in their diagnosis or treatment.Smith also contended that the trial court erred by allowing the State to impeach him with a prior military charge. The Supreme Court of Georgia found that even if it was an error to allow the State to ask about the charge, the error was harmless given the overall evidence. The court affirmed Smith's convictions and sentence. View "Smith v. State" on Justia Law

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The case involves Benito R. Chavez, a Vietnam War veteran who sought service connection for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After being diagnosed with chronic, moderately severe PTSD, he was granted a 100 percent disability evaluation by the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA). However, after a subsequent medical examination, his disability rating was reduced to 50 percent, and later increased to 70 percent, as it was determined that his condition did not result in total occupational impairment. Chavez disagreed with this decision and appealed to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which upheld the reduction.Chavez then appealed to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, arguing that the Board's decision should be reversed and his 100 percent rating reinstated. The Veterans Court agreed that the Board may have improperly relied on evidence developed after the rating reduction, but instead of reversing the Board’s decision, it remanded the case back to the Board for further examination.Chavez appealed this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, arguing that the Veterans Court should have reversed the Board’s decision rather than remanding the case. The government contended that the Federal Circuit lacked jurisdiction over Chavez's appeal. The Federal Circuit rejected the government's jurisdictional argument but affirmed the decision of the Veterans Court on the merits. The Federal Circuit held that the Veterans Court was fully entitled to remand the case to the Board for clarification, and therefore, the decision of the Veterans Court was affirmed. View "Chavez v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Daniel Richard Mahoney, a U.S. Navy veteran, appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit after the Board for Correction of Naval Records (BCNR) denied his 2018 petition to upgrade his 1989 other than honorable discharge status. Mahoney served two periods in the Navy, the first from 1985 to 1988, which resulted in an honorable discharge, and the second from 1988 to 1989, which resulted in the other than honorable discharge. During his second period of service, Mahoney received several non-judicial punishments for unauthorized absences, drunkenness, and wrongful use of a controlled substance. He was diagnosed with alcohol dependency and received treatment, but continued to struggle with alcohol abuse.The BCNR denied Mahoney's petition to upgrade his discharge status, determining that he had failed to provide "substantial evidence" of "probable material error or injustice" to overcome the BCNR's presumption that military officers "have properly discharged their official duties." The BCNR concluded that Mahoney's PTSD did not mitigate the drug-related misconduct which led to his discharge.Mahoney then filed a complaint against Carlos Del Toro, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, in the District Court for the District of Massachusetts, requesting judicial review of the BCNR's decision. The district court concluded that the BCNR's decision was not arbitrary or capricious, an abuse of discretion, or contrary to law, and denied Mahoney's motions while granting Del Toro's cross-motion. Mahoney subsequently appealed to the First Circuit.The First Circuit affirmed the district court's decision, holding that the BCNR's decision was not arbitrary or capricious, an abuse of discretion, unsupported by substantial evidence, or contrary to law. The court found that the BCNR had reasonably determined that Mahoney's PTSD did not mitigate the drug-related misconduct leading to his discharge, and that his account of the positive urinalysis was not credible. The court also rejected Mahoney's argument that the BCNR had failed to apply the liberal consideration standard to his entire claim, finding that the BCNR had indeed applied the standard and had reasonably concluded that Mahoney's PTSD did not warrant changing his discharge characterization. View "Mahoney v. Del Toro" on Justia Law

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The case involves a dispute over the interpretation of the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill, both of which provide educational benefits to veterans. The petitioner, James Rudisill, served in the U.S. Army for nearly eight years over three separate periods, earning entitlements under both bills. He used a portion of his Montgomery benefits for his undergraduate degree and sought to use his Post-9/11 benefits for divinity school. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) limited his Post-9/11 benefits to the duration of his unused Montgomery benefits, arguing that by requesting Post-9/11 benefits before exhausting all of his Montgomery benefits, Rudisill could receive only 36 months of benefits in total, not the 48 months to which he would otherwise be entitled.The Board of Veterans’ Appeals affirmed the VA’s decision, but the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims reversed. The Federal Circuit, however, reversed the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, holding that veterans with multiple periods of qualifying service are subject to a limit on the duration of their benefits.The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment of the Federal Circuit. The Court held that veterans who separately accrue benefits under both the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bills are entitled to both benefits. Neither the Montgomery GI Bill nor the Post-9/11 GI Bill restricts veterans with two separate entitlements who simply seek to use either one. Thus, Rudisill may use his benefits, in any order, up to a 48-month aggregate-benefits cap. The case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. View "Rudisill v. McDonough" on Justia Law