Justia Military Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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Louis Frantzis, a U.S. Army veteran, appealed a decision by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board) that denied his claim for an increased disability rating for his service-connected headaches. The Board's decision was made by a member who did not conduct the hearing, which Frantzis argued was a violation of 38 U.S.C. § 7102. He contended that the same Board member who conducts a hearing should also issue the resulting decision. The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (Veterans Court) affirmed the Board's decision, concluding that the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 (AMA) does not require the Board member conducting the hearing to also decide the appeal.The Veterans Court's decision was based on the removal of pre-AMA language in 38 U.S.C. § 7107(c) that required the same judge conducting the hearing to issue a final determination. The court also rejected the argument that 38 U.S.C. § 7102 supports the same judge requirement because its language did not change with the enactment of the AMA. The court declined to consider the fair process doctrine because Mr. Frantzis did not raise the argument himself.The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the Veterans Court's decision. The court agreed with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs that the AMA eliminated the same judge requirement because it removed the language expressly requiring the same judge for the hearing and final determination. The court also disagreed with Mr. Frantzis' argument that 38 U.S.C. § 7102 supplies a same Board member requirement, stating that the unchanged language of § 7102 cannot be the basis for the same member requirement in the AMA system. The court concluded that the statutory scheme and its history are clear—the same judge is not required to both conduct the hearing and author the final determination under the AMA. View "FRANTZIS v. MCDONOUGH " on Justia Law

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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 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 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

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This case revolves around Mr. Orville Thomas, a former U.S. Navy serviceman, who sought an earlier effective date for his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) claim connected to his service. Thomas had initially filed a claim for "depressive mania" in 1971, after surviving a plane crash during his service, which had been denied by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In 2014, he requested to reopen his claim, submitting additional service department records not previously considered by the VA. While the VA granted service connection for PTSD in 2014, they denied an earlier effective date.Thomas appealed to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, arguing the VA had overlooked certain service department records and regulations, specifically 38 C.F.R. § 3.156(c), which could have potentially allowed for an earlier effective date. However, the Board agreed with the VA’s denial. Thomas further appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, arguing that the Board failed to consider all potentially relevant issues, violating its statutory duty under 38 U.S.C. § 7104(d)(1).The Veterans Court affirmed the Board's decision, arguing that Thomas did not demonstrate the relevance of his service records to his 1971 claim. Thomas appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which found that the Veterans Court applied a more stringent legal standard than required under 38 U.S.C. § 7104. It ruled that the Board must consider all "potentially applicable" regulations raised in the record, not only those proven to be relevant or favorable by the veteran.The Federal Circuit court vacated the Veterans Court’s decision and remanded the case to the Board to provide an adequate written statement of its reasons for denying Thomas's claim for an earlier effective date for his PTSD, considering all relevant regulations and records. View "Thomas v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a lower court's ruling regarding a veteran, Bruce Hay, who was convicted of ten counts of stealing government property and six counts of wire fraud. The case centered around Hay's alleged exaggeration of his disability to gain benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA conducted a six-year investigation, even installing a pole camera that recorded Hay's daily activities outside his house for 68 days.Hay appealed his conviction on three grounds: insufficient evidence supporting his conviction, violation of his Fourth Amendment rights by the VA's installation of the pole camera, and wrongful admission of evidence by the district judge. The court rejected all three arguments.First, the court ruled that Hay's fraudulent acquisition of government property constituted "stealing" under 18 U.S.C. § 641 and that sufficient evidence was presented at trial to support his conviction for stealing government property and wire fraud.Second, the court held that the use of the pole camera did not constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment as it only captured his activities in public view.Lastly, the court rejected Hay's claim that evidence post-dating the charging period was improperly admitted, finding that the district court acted within its discretion.In conclusion, the court affirmed the district court's denial of a judgment of acquittal and the admission of contested evidence. View "United States v. Hay" on Justia Law

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The case originates from the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The appellant, Herbie D. Vest, served on active duty in the United States Army from 1966 to 1971. In 1971, Vest filed a claim for service connection for hearing loss and tinnitus, which was granted at a 0% rating. A subsequent request for an increased rating was denied. In 1972, Vest sent a letter to the Veterans Administration Regional Office (RO) expressing his belief of an error in their decision. In 2016, Vest submitted a claim for compensation for Meniere's disease and "ears-ringing," which was granted at a 60% disability rating, which Vest disputed.In 2020, Vest argued that his 1972 letter constituted a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) and should be considered as such. However, the RO did not accept the letter as an NOD. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals found that the letter expressed dissatisfaction with the decision on his hearing loss disability, but did not express disagreement with the decision regarding tinnitus. The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims dismissed Vest's appeal, holding that they did not have jurisdiction to address the question of defective notice. The court noted that Vest did not argue that he had submitted an NOD with the initial decision concerning tinnitus, and he didn't challenge the Board’s determinations that the letter was not an NOD for the tinnitus decision.The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the appeal by the Veterans Court due to lack of jurisdiction. The court reasoned that the absence of an NOD on the 1971 tinnitus claim and the lack of any decision by the Board on that claim defeat jurisdiction in the Veterans Court. View "Vest v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Between 2010 and 2014, the United States Coast Guard convened Active Duty Enlisted Career Retention Screening Panels (CRSPs) to select enlisted service members for involuntary retirement. This process was carried out without following the procedures and standards of the then-applicable 14 U.S.C. § 357(a)–(h), which addressed involuntary retirement of certain Coast Guard service members with specified seniority. Several former Coast Guard service members, after being involuntarily retired through the CRSP process, brought a case against the United States in the Court of Federal Claims under the Tucker Act, asserting that their retirements were contrary to the law as the Coast Guard had not followed § 357(a)–(h). The government responded by invoking § 357(j), which stated that § 357(a)–(h) did not apply to a “reduction in force.” The issue of the applicability of that exception to the CRSPs was the primary topic of the appeal.The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the Claims Court's decision that the involuntary retirements were unlawful because the CRSPs were not part of a “reduction in force.” The court concluded that a “reduction in force” as used in § 357(j) did not include actions to separate current occupants from their positions with the intent to refill those positions. The court rejected the government’s arguments for a different conclusion. Therefore, the court affirmed the Claims Court’s partial final judgment. View "TIPPINS v. US " on Justia Law