Justia Military Law Opinion Summaries

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The “effective date of an award” of disability compensation to a veteran “shall not be earlier than the date” the veteran’s application for such compensation is received by the VA. 38 U.S.C. 5110(a)(1). Section 5110(b)(1) provides an exception that permits an earlier effective date if the VA receives the application within one year of the veteran’s discharge from military service: under such circumstances, the effective date of the award shall date back to “the day following the date of the veteran’s discharge or release.”Arellano filed his application more than 30 years after he was discharged from the Navy, he argued that section 5110(b)(1)’s one-year period should be equitably tolled to afford his award an earlier effective date reaching back to the day after his discharge. The Veterans Court denied Arellano an effective date earlier than the date his disability benefits application was received by the VA. The Federal Circuit previously held that 5110(b)(1) is not a statute of limitations amenable to equitable tolling but merely establishes an effective date for the payment of benefits, thereby categorically foreclosing equitable tolling. The Federal Circuit affirmed as to Arellano, declining to overrule that precedent, stating that the statutory text evinces clear intent to foreclose equitable tolling of section 5110(b)(1)’s one-year period. View "Arellano v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Anania served in the Army, 1972-1975. In 2008, Anania sought an increased evaluation for the degenerative joint disease of his spine and major depressive disorder, and entitlement to a total disability rating based on individual unemployability. The VA issued a rating decision. Anania filed a Notice of Disagreement. In December 2009, the VA denied Anania’s request, describing the process for appeal. Anania had until March 3, 2010—one year after the date of mailing of the notification of the VA’s decision—to file a substantive appeal with the Waco Regional Office. In June 2012, Anania’s counsel, Carpenter, sent a letter to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals requesting confirmation that it had docketed Anania’s substantive appeal of the rating decision.The Board concluded that Anania failed to timely file his substantive appeal, which “was not received into VA custody until June 29, 2012.” Anania urged the Board to find his appeal timely filed under the common law mailbox rule, submitting a signed affidavit from Carpenter, alleging that Carpenter had personally mailed the substantive appeal on January 18, 2010. On remand, the Board again determined that Anania’s appeal was not timely filed, stating that the mailbox rule’s presumption of receipt did not attach because Carpenter’s affidavit was “no more than self-serving testimony.” The Veterans Court affirmed. The Federal Circuit reversed. A party’s affidavit may provide credible evidence to satisfy the mailbox rule, and the government did not challenge the credibility of Carpenter affidavit. View "Anania v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Langdon served on active duty in the Navy, 1980-1996. After leaving service, Langdon sought disability compensation for a “spine condition especially [the] thorac[ic] [and] lumbar regions.” The VA determined Langdon had a service-connected thoracic spine injury, a non-service-connected lumbar spine injury, and only 55 degrees of forward flexion for his thoracolumbar spine. It also determined that Langdon’s service-connected thoracic spine injury caused no functional impairment; the non-service-connected lumbar spine injury caused his reduced flexion. Because his service-connected injury caused no functional impairment, the VA assigned Langdon a zero percent disability rating under 38 C.F.R. 4.71a. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals rejected his claim of entitlement to a 20 percent rating based on his limited thoracolumbar flexion but increased Langdon’s rating to 10 percent based on upper back pain under a different regulation, 38 C.F.R. 4.45(f), 4.59. The Veterans Court affirmed.The Federal Circuit reversed. The VA’s regulation requires it to rate the thoracolumbar spine as a unit when applying the General Rating Formula. Under this interpretation, the VA does not dispute that Langdon has a service-connected thoracic injury with reduced thoracolumbar flexion that entitles him to a 20 percent disability rating under the General Rating Formula. View "Langdon v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Snyder served in the Army for fewer than 50 days in 1974, during the Vietnam “period of war,” 38 C.F.R. 3.2(f). He received an honorable discharge when a knee injury rendered him unfit. Four decades later, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). He sought disability benefits under 38 U.S.C. 1110. The Veterans Court denied his claim, rejecting Snyder’s argument under a VA regulation, made final in 2009, that provides a presumption of service connection for veterans with ALS if specified preconditions are satisfied, 38 C.F.R. 3.318(a), (b).The Federal Circuit affirmed the denial. Snyder does not satisfy one of the preconditions—that the veteran “have active, continuous service of 90 days or more.” That precondition is not contrary to the statutory scheme nor arbitrary and capricious; 38 U.S.C. 501(a) supplies the required statutory authority for the regulation and section 3.318, as an exercise of that authority, is not contrary to other statutory provisions cited by Snyder. The Secretary found no reliable evidence of a correlation between ALS and service periods as short as 90 days; it was reasonable to choose a familiar short period to avoid too demanding an evidentiary standard (no presumption) or too lenient a standard (no minimum service period) for applying the statutory requirement of service connection to ALS. View "Snyder v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Cameron filed a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) on behalf of an Army veteran in August 2005. The VA denied Cameron attorney’s fees under 38 C.F.R. 14.636(c), which permits an attorney to charge fees for services provided before a final Board decision only where a NOD was filed on or after June 20, 2007. Before the law was amended, attorneys representing veterans in veterans’ benefits cases before the VA were prohibited from charging fees for services provided before a final Board decision.The Veterans Court and the Federal Circuit affirmed the denial, holding that section 14.636(c) is consistent with its authorizing statute, 38 U.S.C. 5904. Congress considered eliminating all fee restrictions under section 5904(c)(1) by repealing subsection (c)(1) entirely but made a legislative choice between the competing purposes of liberalizing the availability of attorney’s fees and avoiding disruption to the veterans’ benefits system, and “adopted a delayed and staggered effective date . . . [to] allow a deliberate and gradual implementation of these policies in order to minimize any disruption to the VA system.” In denying Cameron attorney’s fees, the VA has done no more than give effect to that legislative choice. View "Cameron v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Lynch served on active duty in the Marine Corps, 1972-1976. In 2015, Lynch was evaluated on two separate occasions by Dr. Newsome, a private psychologist. Lynch described phobias about confined spaces, panic attacks, memory problems, mood swings, frequent nightmares, antisocial behaviors, and depression, which he attributed to intrusive memories from his time in service. Dr. Newsome reported that Lynch’s symptoms and the results of the PTSD Checklist supported a diagnosis of PTSD.Lynch filed a claim of entitlement to disability benefits for PTSD and underwent a VA PTSD examination. The VA examiner reported that Lynch’s PTSD did not result in symptoms that were severe enough to interfere with occupational or social functioning or to require continuous medication and that the level of impairment observed by Dr. Newsome was not observed during the VA examination. The regional office granted Lynch’s claim with a 30% disability rating. Lynch filed a Notice of Disagreement and submitted two additional psychological evaluations conducted by a private psychiatrist, Dr. Jabbour. He underwent a second VA PTSD examination. The examiner found some of Jabbour’s conclusions “more extreme than what was supported by available evidence.”The Veterans Court rejected Lynch’s argument that the Board misapplied 38 U.S.C. 5107(b) and wrongly found that he was not entitled to the “benefit of the doubt.” The Federal Circuit affirmed. The benefit of the doubt rule is inapplicable when the preponderance of the evidence is found to be against the claimant. View "Lynch v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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In 2011, the Navy published a job announcement for an Event Forum Project Chief, a full-time, permanent, GS-13/14-grade position. Two candidates—Beck and Wible—were certified as qualified for the position. Captain Payton selected Wible. Beck, had been in active Navy service from 1984 until his retirement in 2005 and had been promoted through a series of jobs relevant to the posted position. In 2001, Beck earned a bachelor’s degree in business with a GPA of 3.91; he earned a master’s degree in Human Resource Management and Development in 2002. In 2006, Beck rejoined the Navy workforce as a civilian Special-Events Planning Officer (SEPO), a GS-13-1 grade position. Beck had trained Wible. Payton had apparently first shown animosity toward Beck during a meeting in 2010.Beck filed a formal EEO action alleging discrimination based on race, gender, age, and disability, which engendered a retaliatory and hostile work environment. Beck resigned and unsuccessfully eventually sought corrective action from the Merit Systems Protection Board under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994.The Federal Circuit reversed in part. Preselection of the successful candidate can buttress an agency’s personnel decision to hire a less qualified candidate only when the preselection is not tainted by an unlawful discriminatory intent. The Board erred in finding that Beck’s non-selection would have occurred regardless of his prior military service as required under 38 U.S.C. 4311(c)(1). View "Beck v. Department of the Navy" on Justia Law

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Flores-Vazquez served on active duty in the Navy, 1984-1988. In 1998, he sought service connection for depression for which he received treatment while onboard the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. Flores-Vazquez claimed that he had witnessed several accidental deaths during service, including “a man being sucked inside the nose of an airplane.” Flores-Vazquez did not then submit service department records verifying the incidents. Flores-Vazquez did not appeal the denial of his claim. In 2005, Flores-Vazquez sought to reopen his claim. A medical examiner diagnosed bipolar disorder with depression and determined that the condition was “due to or the result of in[-]service illness.” The regional office denied service connection, reasoning that the medical opinion was “appeared to be based on the veteran’s unsupported report.”In 2008-2009, while Flores-Vazquez’s appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals was pending, the VA received the 1986-1987 command histories of the Kitty Hawk. In 2010, the Board decided that, while the evidence was not compelling, service connection was warranted. The Board relied primarily on the 2005 medical report, not the command histories, and granted an effective date of January 2005. On remand from the Veterans Court, the Board found that 38 C.F.R. 3.156(c) did not apply because the Board’s 2010 award of benefits “was not based on” the new service department records. The Federal Circuit affirmed. The command histories submitted in 2008 played no role in the grant of service connection; the favorable resolution turned on a 2005 VA opinion that was based on service medical records that were always part of the claims file. View "Flores-Vazquez v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. 2412, requires that if statutory requirements are met, the federal government must reimburse attorneys’ fees of a party who prevails in a lawsuit against the government. Smith, dissatisfied with the VA’s decision regarding his claims for veterans’ benefits, took an appeal to the Veterans Court. He was successful on the merits in part of his case and requested an EAJA award for his appellate counsel. The Veterans Court agreed to an award which included fees for 18 hours the attorney spent on an initial review of the 9,389-page agency record. The court imposed a reduction in that part of the award because Smith prevailed on some but not all of the issues that were litigated. The Veterans Court reasoned that this reduction was required as a matter of law by the EAJA.The Federal Circuit reversed in part. The Veterans Court undervalued the importance of the initial review of the case, a review that is necessary before appellate counsel could determine what bases existed for an appeal. That decision was contrary to the purpose and law of the EAJA. The court noted that if Smith had brought only the successful claim, the hours would have been fully compensated. View "Smith v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Morse served in the Navy, 1970-1972; including six months in Da Nang, Vietnam. In 1999, Morse filed a claim for compensation, listing several disabilities, including PTSD. A VA regional office granted him a nonservice-connected pension in 2001, based on joint disease. He later obtained Social Security disability benefits. In 2002, the regional office denied Morse’s claim of service connection for PTSD, finding "no credible evidence of verification of the claimed stressors.” In 2004, Morse sought to reopen his PTSD claim. The regional office received service department records in 2005, showing that in 1972 a psychiatrist reported that Morse appeared “moderately depressed” about personal problems. An examiner concluded that Morse was unable to provide convincingly relate symptoms to his reported military exposure. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals affirmed.In 2009, Morse sought to reopen his claim. A VA examiner diagnosed Morse as suffering from PTSD. The Joint Services Records Research Center (JSRRC) coordinator's memo noted that the events “reported by the veteran" are "consistent" with the conditions of service "even though we were unable to locate official records of the specific occurrence.” Morse was granted service connection for PTSD, effective in 2009. The Board in 2016 affirmed; because no additional service records had been obtained since the Board’s 2008 decision, the VA was not required to conduct another reconsideration. In 2018, the Board found that the 2010 JSRRC memorandum did not constitute an “official service department record”; Morse was “essentially attacking the merits of" the 2008 Board decision, "which is final.”The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed; the “VA’s obligation to reconsider the PTSD claim upon receipt of new service department records was exhausted in 2008.” The 2010 JSRRC memorandum did not constitute a service department record that triggered a renewed obligation to reconsider Morse’s claim. View "Morse v. McDonough" on Justia Law