Justia Military Law Opinion Summaries

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Appellee, a member of the Fleet Marine Corps Reserve, pleaded guilty at a court-martial to the sexual assault of a civilian. In this collateral challenge to his sentence, Appellee argued that the statutory grant of military jurisdiction over Fleet Marine Reservists exceeds Congress’ authority under the “Make Rules Clause.” The district court held for Appellee and the DC Circuit reversed.   The court explained that whether a person may be subjected to court-martial jurisdiction turns “on one factor: the military status of the accused.” Solorio v. United States, 483 U.S. 435 (1987). Here, based on the Supreme Court’s precedents interpreting the Make Rules Clause as well as the original meaning of that Clause, the court held that a person has “military status” if he has a formal relationship with the military that includes a duty to obey military orders. As a Fleet Marine Reservist, Appellee was “actually a member or part of the armed forces,” and therefore amenable to military jurisdiction under the Make Rules Clause. The court further held that the Fifth Amendment’s Grand Jury Clause did not separately bar Appellee’s court-martial. View "Steven Larrabee v. Carlos Del Toro" on Justia Law

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Scott Hockenberry filed a complaint against Michelle Kalas in Oklahoma state court alleging state-law claims of defamation, tortious interference, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and abuse of process. Hockenberry was a Captain in the United States Army and Kalas was an Army Reserve Captain. In 2016, Hockenberry and Kalas were employed as attorneys at Fort Sill near Lawton, Oklahoma. Beginning in May 2016, Hockenberry and Kalas became involved in a consensual sexual relationship. In August 2016, Kalas made statements accusing Hockenberry of sexual assault and other misconduct to work colleagues, an officer with the Lawton Police Department, and a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator at Fort Sill. The Army brought formal charges of sexual and physical assault against Hockenberry under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The charges were referred to a general court-martial.The United States certified under 28 U.S.C. § 2679 that Kalas was acting within the scope of her federal employment when she made such statements. It then removed the action to federal court and substituted the United States as the defendant, deeming Hockenberry’s claims to be brought under the Federal Torts Claims Act (“FTCA”). Once in federal court, Hockenberry challenged the United States’ scope-of-employment (“SOE”) certification. The district court rejected that challenge, ruling that Hockenberry failed to demonstrate that Kalas had engaged in conduct beyond the scope of her federal employment. The court then granted the United States’ motion to dismiss Hockenberry’s action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction based upon the United States’ sovereign immunity. Hockenberry appealed, arguing the the district court erred in its denial of his motion challenging the United States’ SOE certification. After review, the Tenth Circuit found the district court erred in concluding that an evidentiary hearing on Hockenberry’s motion was not necessary. The district court’s judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Hockenberry v. United States" on Justia Law

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Morris served in the Army, 1965-1968. In 1970, he unsuccessfully sought disability benefits (38 U.S.C. 1110), alleging a disability based on a nervous condition connected to his service. The VA instead granted his claim for a pension based on a non-service-connected condition. In 2005, Morris sought compensation based on service-connected PTSD; he was eventually assigned a 100% disability rating.Morris has for many years been seeking an earlier effective date for service-connected disability compensation. The VA regional office and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals found no clear and unmistakable error. The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims rejected a claim that a September 1970 notice from the VA—giving notice of the August 1970 rating decision—was constitutionally inadequate under the Due Process Clause; Morris had not presented this argument to the Board but contended that the Veterans Court was obligated to consider this constitutional question in the first instance under 38 U.S.C. 7261(a)(1). The Veterans Court exercised its discretion, under issue-exhaustion precedents, to decline to entertain the argument presented for the first time on appeal. The Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the appeal. The Veterans Court had the discretion to apply an issue-exhaustion analysis and correctly applied that analysis. View "Morris v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Enacted pursuant to Article I of the Constitution, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), gives returning service members the right to reclaim their prior jobs with state employers and authorizes suit if those employers refuse to accommodate veterans’ service-related disabilities, 38 U.S.C. 4301. Torres, a state trooper, was called to active duty in the Army Reserves and deployed to Iraq, where he was exposed to toxic burn pits. Torres, honorably discharged, returned home with constrictive bronchitis. Torres asked his former employer to accommodate his condition by re-employing him in a different role. Texas refused. A state court held that his USERRA claims should be dismissed based on sovereign immunity.The Supreme Court reversed. By ratifying the Constitution, the states agreed their sovereignty would yield to the national power to raise and support the Armed Forces. Congress may exercise this power to authorize private damages suits against nonconsenting states, as in USERRA.The test for whether the structure of the original Constitution itself reflects a waiver of states’ immunity is whether the federal power is “complete in itself, and the states consented to the exercise of that power—in its entirety—in the plan of the Convention.” Congress’ power to build and maintain the Armed Forces fits that test. Congress has long legislated regarding military forces at the expense of state sovereignty. USERRA expressly “supersedes any State law . . . that reduces, limits, or eliminates in any manner any right or benefit provided by this chapter, including the establishment of additional prerequisites to the exercise of any such right or the receipt of any such benefit.” View "Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety" on Justia Law

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Long served in the Air Force, 1969-1976 and spent most of that time as an air traffic control radar repairman, working without ear protection near active runways. In 2009, Long filed a disability compensation claim for hearing loss and tinnitus. The Department of Veterans Affairs found his hearing loss and tinnitus were service-connected, assigning a 0% disability rating for his hearing loss and a 10% disability rating for his tinnitus according to the schedular rating criteria, 38 C.F.R. 4.85. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals denied his request for an extra-schedular rating. Long had argued that the schedular rating criteria did not capture the functional effects of his hearing loss, including ear pain caused by his hearing aids. The Veterans Court affirmed, finding no direct causal link between Long’s ear pain and his service-connected hearing loss.The Federal Circuit vacated. A secondary condition is considered service-connected if it is “proximately due to or the result of” a service-connected disability. Direct causation is not required. The court remanded, stating that the Veterans Court engaged in impermissible fact-finding. View "Long v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Bowling and Appling were discharged from military service under conditions other than honorable. Each eventually sought veterans’ benefits. Their discharges would statutorily bar the benefits at issue unless they came within an exception that applies where an offense led to the discharge and the service member was “insane” at the time of the offense, 38 U.S.C. 5303(b). The Board of Veterans’ Appeals found the regulatory definition of “insane” not to be met either in either case. The Veterans Court rejected their argument of unconstitutional vagueness of the insanity-defining regulation on its face, though not as applied to them. The court declined to take judicial notice of material outside the record, such as a publication by advocates for veterans addressing VA actions across a range of cases over many years.The Federal Circuit affirmed. The court upheld the Veterans Court’s refusal to take judicial notice; there was no "futility" in developing the record on the constitutional issue before the Board even if the Board could not have held the regulation unconstitutional. The Board could have performed at least record-development functions and associated fact-finding functions. The facial-vagueness challenge fails on the merits. The court noted that the regulation does not call for a categorical approach to interpretation. View "Bowling v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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The U.S. military sprayed over 17 million gallons of herbicides over Vietnam during “Operation Ranch Hand,” primarily Agent Orange. Concerns about the health effects of veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange led to the Agent Orange Act of 1991, 105 Stat. 11. For veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during a specified period, the Act presumes exposure to an herbicide agent containing 2,4-D or dioxin, 38 U.S.C. 1116(f), and presumes a service connection for certain diseases associated with herbicide-agent exposure, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and soft-tissue sarcoma. The VA subsequently issued regulations extending similar presumptions to other groups of veterans. In 2017, the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee expressed concern that additional exposures to Agent Orange may have occurred in Guam.In 2018, MVA petitioned the VA to issue rules presuming herbicide-agent exposure for veterans who served on Guam or Johnston Island during specified periods. The VA denied MVA’s petition. The Federal Circuit rejected MVA’s petitions under 38 U.S.C. 502 to set aside the VA’s denial. MVA has not shown that the VA’s determination that the evidence did not warrant presuming exposure for every single veteran who served in named areas during the relevant period was contrary to law nor that the denial “lacked a rational basis.” View "Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc. v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

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George joined the Marine Corps in 1975 without disclosing his history of schizophrenic episodes. His medical examination noted no mental disorders. George suffered an episode during training. The Marines medically discharged him. George applied for veterans’ disability benefits based on his schizophrenia, 38 U.S.C. 1110. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals denied his appeal from a regional office denial in 1977. In 2014, George asked the Board to revise its final decision. When the VA denies a benefits claim, that decision generally becomes “final and conclusive” after the veteran exhausts the opportunity for direct appeal. George sought collateral review under an exception allowing revision of a final benefits decision at any time on grounds of “clear and unmistakable error,” 38 U.S.C. 5109A, 7111. He claimed that the Board applied a later-invalidated regulation to deny his claim without requiring the VA to rebut the statutory presumption that he was in sound condition when he entered service.The Veterans Court, Federal Circuit, and Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief. The invalidation of a VA regulation after a veteran’s benefits decision becomes final cannot support a claim for collateral relief based on clear and unmistakable error. Congress adopted the “clear and unmistakable error doctrine” developed under decades of prior agency practice. The invalidation of a prior regulation constitutes a “change in interpretation of law” under historical agency practice, not “clear and unmistakable error.” That approach is consistent with the general rule that the new interpretation of a statute can only retroactively affect decisions still open on direct review. The fact that Congress did not expressly enact the specific regulatory principle barring collateral relief for subsequent changes in interpretation does not mean that the principle did not carry over. View "George v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Groves served in the Army on active duty, 1970-1971, including service in Vietnam. In 1990, a VA regional office awarded Groves benefits for PTSD, shell fragment wounds, and a nerve injury. In 1998, Groves sought education benefits through the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VRE) program. Groves never attended the initial VRE evaluation—due at least in part to the isolated nature of his town and his asserted inability to travel—notwithstanding the VA counseling officer’s attempts to accommodate Groves over a period of years. During the ensuing proceedings, Groves twice sent the VA letters in which he stated that he “enjoin[ed]” further action on the claims.“The Board of Appeals ultimately denied Groves entitlement to VRE benefits, finding that his letters did “not constitute[] withdrawal[s] of the appeal, such that there [was] no basis for the Board to not proceed.” The Veterans Court affirmed, finding that the Board lacked authority to adjudicate Groves’s appeal under “Hamilton,” which required an automatic stay when requested by a veteran but that any error was harmless. The Federal Circuit vacated. The Veterans Court legally erred in finding that the Board was compelled to grant an automatic indefinite stay of proceedings; it should have determined whether Groves had established good cause for a stay and, if so, the appropriate duration and conditions of the stay. View "Groves v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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In 2013, while in the Navy, Appellee A.L. had intercourse with the adult victim when her ability to consent was impaired by alcohol. He was charged with sexual assault under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Appellee was tried by general court-martial, with a panel of service members acting as fact-finders. The panel returned a verdict of guilty. Appellee was sentenced to sixty days’ confinement, a reduction in rank, and a dishonorable discharge. He appealed to the United States Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed the conviction and sentence. After his discharge from the Navy, Appellee moved to Pennsylvania. He registered with the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) as a sex offender subject to registration under Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”). The PSP determined Appellee’s crime triggered a Tier III registration obligation. Appellee appealed that designation, arguing PSP’s action was adjudicative and not merely ministerial. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed appeal in this matter to determine whether sexual assault as defined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice was comparable to sexual assault as defined under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code so as to make Appellee a lifetime SORNA registrant. The Supreme Court concluded the military statute under which Appellee was convicted effectively defined two crimes, and PSP lacked a valid foundation to discern which of the two formed the basis for the military panel’s finding of guilt. Therefore, Appellee’s court-martial conviction could not be the basis for his classification as a Tier III registrant. View "A. L. v. PA State Police" on Justia Law