Justia Military Law Opinion Summaries

by
Al Bahlul, a Yemeni national, was Osama bin Laden’s head of propaganda at the time of the September 11 attacks. After he was captured in Pakistan, Al Bahlul was convicted by a military commission in Guantanamo Bay of conspiracy to commit war crimes, providing material support for terrorism, and soliciting others to commit war crimes. The D.C. Circuit vacated two of his three convictions on ex post facto grounds. On remand, the Court of Military Commission Review, without remanding to the military commission, reaffirmed Al Bahlul's life sentence for the conspiracy conviction.The D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded. The CMCR failed to apply the correct harmless error standard, In reevaluating Al Bahlul’s sentence, the CMCR should have asked whether it was beyond a reasonable doubt that the military commission would have imposed the same sentence for conspiracy alone. The court rejected Al Bahlul’s remaining arguments. The appointment of the Convening Authority was lawful; there is no reason to unsettle Al Bahlul I’s ex post facto ruling, and the court lacked jurisdiction in an appeal from the CMCR to entertain challenges to the conditions of Al Bahlul’s ongoing confinement. View "Al Bahlul v. United States" on Justia Law

by
The Navy began a program to design and build littoral combat ships (LCS) and issued a request for proposals. During the initial phase of the LCS procurement, FastShip met with and discussed a potential hull design with government contractors subject to non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements. FastShip was not awarded a contract. FastShip filed an unsuccessful administrative claim, alleging patent infringement. The Claims Court found that the FastShip patents were valid and directly infringed by the government. The Federal Circuit affirmed.The Claims Court awarded FastShip attorney’s fees and expenses ($6,178,288.29); 28 U.S.C. 1498(a), which provides for a fee award to smaller entities that have prevailed on infringement claims, unless the government can show that its position was “substantially justified.” The court concluded that the government’s pre-litigation conduct and litigation positions were not “as a whole” substantially justified. It unreasonable for a government contractor to gather information from FastShip but not to include it as part of the team that was awarded the contract and the Navy took an exceedingly long time to act on FastShip’s administrative claim and did not provide sufficient analysis in denying the claim. The court found the government’s litigation positions unreasonable, including its arguments with respect to one document and its reliance on the testimony of its expert to prove obviousness despite his “extraordinary skill.” The Federal Circuit vacated. Reliance on this pre-litigation conduct in the fee analysis was an error. View "FastShip, LLC v. United States" on Justia Law

by
In 2005, Prestonback was appointed as a West Point cadet and signed USMA Form 5-50, agreeing that “if [he] voluntarily fail[s], or because of misconduct fail[s], to complete the period of active duty . . . [he] will reimburse” the proportional amount of his educational scholarship and that “voluntarily fail" includes, "but is not limited to," failure to complete active duty because of conscientious objection, resignation, or marriage while a cadet. Form 5-50 derived from 10 U.S.C. 2005. After graduating, Prestonback was deployed to Iraq in 2010 and was promoted to First Lieutenant. He received his first negative officer evaluation report (OER), stating that he repeatedly “failed to follow direct lawful orders,” “lack[ed] initiative,” and that he had “received no fewer than six" counseling sessions. Prestonback acknowledged that these statements were correct. A third negative OER noted Prestonback’s repeated failure of physical fitness tests.In 2013, the Army discharged Prestonback, who was notified that he owed $30,352.01 in recoupment, based on the uncompleted time remaining on his service agreement. Prestonback filed an Application for Correction of Military Record, arguing that he was eliminated involuntarily, and Form 5-50 only requires recoupment for voluntary action or misconduct. The Federal Circuit affirmed a judgment in favor of the government. Because tuition assistance is encapsulated by military pay and benefit entitlements, Prestonback’s case is governed by statutory principles. Prestonback voluntarily failed to complete his active duty by substandard performance. View "Prestonback v. United States" on Justia Law

by
While serving in the Navy 1968-1970, Simmons experienced feelings of depression and homesickness. A VA physician diagnosed Simmons with situational depression but no permanent disability. Another VA physician diagnosed him with immature personality disorder and recommended he be discharged. In 1972, the VA awarded Simmons a non-service-connected pension on his polyarthritis claim. In 1974, Simmons sought additional compensation, asserting that his arthritis was service-connected and that he also had a nervous condition that justified compensation. The VA denied the claim. In 2005, after receiving a total disability rating for an unrelated asbestosis-based claim, Simmons claimed that there was clear and unmistakable error (CUE) in the 1974 decision, with respect to the denial of service connection, citing the presumptions of soundness and service connection in 38 U.S.C. 105(a) and 1111.The Board found that Simmons’s current psychiatric disorder was due to his non-service-connected arthritis and that the presumptions did not apply. The Veterans Court affirmed, finding that although the Board erred in analyzing the presumptions, that error was harmless because Simmons’s current disability was not causally related to his in-service condition. The Federal Circuit affirmed, rejecting an argument that a failure to apply an evidentiary presumption is per se prejudicial. A per se rule of prejudice for failure to apply the presumptions would undo any proper VA finding that the claimant had failed to establish a causal nexus. View "Simmons v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

by
While serving in the Navy, 1972-1073, Merritt sustained a concussion in an automobile accident. In 2006, a VA psychologist prepared a note. stating that Merritt had “[s]ymptoms of bipolar disorder[, which] first began ... on active duty,” and that Merritt’s “work performance began to suffer” after the in-service accident. In 2010, Merritt sought disability benefits for bipolar disorder, anxiety, and personality disorders. The Board determined that Merritt’s psychiatric disorders were not service-connected, relying solely on an independent medical expert opinion. On remand, the Board again denied Merritt’s claim, stating that the VA psychology note was entitled to little probative weight, apparently because there was no evidence that the VA psychologist had access to Merritt’s records, and there was a discrepancy between that note and Merritt’s treatment records as to the length of time that Merritt was unconscious following the automobile accident. The Veterans Court affirmed, finding the Board’s error in not following the remand order harmless because the VA note “described no symptoms that . . . supported . . . a retrospective diagnosis” of bipolar disorder, and “there [was] no possibility that the Board could have awarded service connection based on [the note].”Merritt died; Mrs. Merritt was allowed to substitute herself as the surviving spouse. The Federal Circuit subsequently dismissed her appeal as moot. Mrs. Merritt did not preserve her claim by filing a formal claim with the VA within one year of Merritt’s death as required. View "Merritt v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

by
Sellers served in the Navy in 1964-1968, and in the Army, 1981-1996. He suffers from major depressive disorder (MDD). Sellers has a 2009 effective date for his disability benefits. He seeks an effective date of March 1996, the date of his formal claim seeking compensation for specific injuries to his leg, knee, back, finger, and ears. On his application, under “Remarks,” Sellers wrote “Request for s/c [service connection] for disabilities occurring during active duty service.” Sellers contends that the law in effect in 1996 requires his remarks to be understood as a claim for compensation for his MDD, although his claim in no way refers to MDD. The Veterans Court agreed with Sellers. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs challenged that decision.The Federal Circuit reversed, finding that Sellers is not entitled to an earlier effective date. A legally sufficient formal claim must identify, at least at a high level of generality, the current condition upon which the veteran’s claim is based. The Secretary’s duty to assist begins upon receipt of a formal claim that identifies the medical condition for which benefits are sought, which triggers the Secretary’s duty to obtain the veteran’s medical records, 38 U.S.C. 5103A(c)(1)(A), and then to fully develop the stated claim. Until the Secretary comprehends the condition on which the claim is based, the Secretary does not know where to begin to develop the claim. View "Sellers v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

by
Jones served on active duty with the Army in 1967-1974 and in the Army National Guard in 1987-1990. In 1994, he sought disability benefits for a nervous disorder and a leg wound. A VA regional office granted service connection for a leg scar but found that disability non-compensable and denied the claim for a nervous condition. Jones did not appeal. In 2002, Jones filed a request to reopen his claim, asserting that he was assaulted by muggers while stationed in Germany, which resulted in his developing PTSD. The regional office denied his request. In 2008, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals granted the request to reopen, directing the regional office to obtain additional information from two individuals with knowledge of the assault. In 2010, the regional office granted Jones service connection for PTSD and a schizoaffective disorder, with a 100% disability rating effective from October 2002, when he sought to reopen his claim. Jones sought to have the effective date made retroactive to 1994. In 2016, after Jones’s death, the Board held that the effective date was 2002. The Veterans Court and the Federal Circuit affirmed, citing 38 C.F.R. 3.156(c); the decision in Jones’s favor was based on evidence created in 2003 and 2008, which did not exist in 1994. View "Jones v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

by
The Second Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for failure to register under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). Defendant was convicted of raping another member of his platoon in violation of Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and, after he was discharged from military service, he was designated as a Level Two sex offender.The court held that 34 U.S.C. 20911(5)(A)(iv)'s delegation to the Secretary of Defense to designate which military offenses constitute "sex offenses" under the statute does not violate the non-delegation doctrine. The court also held that the Secretary of Defense did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act in designating military offenses as sex offenses under SORNA. View "United States v. Mingo" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff filed suit under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), after his civilian employer did not promptly rehire him after he completed a tour of duty.The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not err in dismissing plaintiff's discrimination claim under 38 U.S.C. 4311, holding that plaintiff has not pleaded sufficient factual content to support a "reasonable inference" that his military service was a motivating factor in any of the airline's conduct about which he complains; the district court did not err in ruling that American Airlines failed to discharge its statutory duty promptly; and the district court did not err in rejecting plaintiff's contention that American Airlines' conduct was willful. The court affirmed in part and vacated in part, remanding for the district court to recalculate damages, presumptively imposing backpay damages against American Airlines and denying damages for the period from October 22 to January 25, unless the offered position was not an equivalent under the Act. View "Thomas Harwood, III v. American Airlines, Inc." on Justia Law

by
Carr served Air Force active duty, 1976-1980, earning 45 months of education benefits under Chapter 34 (Vietnam-era GI Bill), Carr used 41 months and 11 days of those benefits for his own education before the entire Chapter 34 program expired. After September 11, 2001, Carr returned to active duty and would have been eligible for 36 additional months of benefits under Chapter 33 (Post-9/11 GI Bill), but 38 U.S.C. 3695 limited him to a cumulative total of 48 months. Carr transferred those benefits to his daughter, 38 U.S.C. 3319, who used paid for two semesters. Due to a VA error, she initially did not receive payments to cover the final days of the Fall 2010 semester and was informed, incorrectly, that she had exhausted her benefits. Later, it was discovered that she had 19 days of benefits remaining; one day was applied to the Fall 2013 semester. Chapter 33 permits extensions of education benefits “in a roundabout way” to the end of the semester, 38 C.F.R. 21.9635(o)(1). The regional office, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and the Veterans Court rejected Carr's Chapter 33 claim.The Federal Circuit reversed and remanded for consideration of the unaddressed regulatory challenge. . The Veterans Court resolved the appeal through statutory interpretation and did not address the transferred benefits regulation; 38 U.S.C. 3695(a)’s aggregate multi-program benefits cap does not preclude end-of-term extensions of benefits authorized under individual benefits programs. View "Carr v. Wilkie" on Justia Law