Justia Military Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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In this case, defendant Charles Yeager-Reiman, a veteran, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor grand theft in connection with fraudulent activities related to veterans' benefits from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Yeager-Reiman appealed his conviction, arguing that his prosecution was preempted by federal law, as his offenses concerned the theft of benefits from the VA.The Court of Appeal of the State of California Second Appellate District Division Five disagreed with Yeager-Reiman's contention, and affirmed the lower court's judgement. The court ruled that federal preemption did not apply in this case. While federal law establishes the guidelines and regulations for VA benefits, it does not prohibit state-level criminal prosecutions for fraudulent activities related to these benefits.In terms of field preemption, the court determined that the provisions of the federal law did not indicate an intent by Congress to occupy the field of criminal prosecution of veterans in connection with the theft of VA benefits. As for obstacle preemption, the court found that allowing state-level prosecutions for theft of VA benefits actually promotes Congress's purpose of aiding veterans by preserving funds for veterans' benefits through deterrence.Therefore, the court concluded that neither field preemption nor obstacle preemption deprived the trial court of jurisdiction to hear Yeager-Reiman's case. View "People v. Yeager-Reiman" on Justia Law

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In this case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Vincent Curtis Conyers, an army veteran, sought employment benefits under the Veteran Readiness and Employment program, which is administered by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. His application was denied by the VA, and this denial was subsequently upheld by the Board of Veterans' Appeals and the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. During his appeal, Mr. Conyers requested that certain documents be added to the administrative record under the doctrine of constructive possession. The Veterans Court denied his request, reasoning that the documents did not have a "direct relationship" to his claim, a standard of review that the court derived from a previous decision in Euzebio v. Wilkie.However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the Veterans Court applied an erroneous legal standard in its review of the doctrine of constructive possession. The Federal Circuit stated that the correct standard for constructive possession is one of "relevance and reasonableness," not the "direct relationship" standard applied by the Veterans Court. The Federal Circuit noted that its standard aligns with the VA's statutory duty to assist veterans in substantiating their claims and ensures that all record documents reasonably expected to be part of a veteran’s claim are included in the administrative record. Therefore, the court vacated the decision of the Veterans Court and remanded it for further proceedings, with the instruction to apply the correct standard of "relevance and reasonableness" in its review of the doctrine of constructive possession. View "CONYERS v. MCDONOUGH " on Justia Law

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In 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the disorderly conduct convictions of Jamison Krahenbuhl, an Air Force veteran. Krahenbuhl had been convicted following an incident at the Milo C. Huempfner Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Green Bay, Wisconsin. During a respiratory therapy appointment, Krahenbuhl became agitated and engaged in abusive language and disruptive behavior that led to the clinic staff summoning VA police. He was subsequently charged with two counts of disorderly conduct under 38 C.F.R. § 1.218(a)(5), (b)(11) and was found guilty on both counts.On appeal, Krahenbuhl argued that his convictions violated his First Amendment rights, and that the government failed to prove all the elements of the crimes. The appellate court, however, disagreed. It determined that the clinic was a nonpublic forum, where greater regulation of speech is permissible. The court found that the regulation under which Krahenbuhl was convicted was viewpoint neutral and reasonable, given the clinic's primary aim of providing medical care to veterans. The court also rejected Krahenbuhl's argument that the government failed to prove that the clinic was under the charge and control of the VA and not under the charge and control of the General Services Administration, finding that this was an invited error. Consequently, Krahenbuhl's convictions were affirmed. View "USA v. Krahenbuhl" on Justia Law

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Appellant Watkins Law & Advocacy, PLLC, submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act to various federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Watkins sought records concerning the process by which the names of certain veterans and other VA beneficiaries are added to a background check system that identifies persons barred from possessing firearms for having been adjudicated as “mental defective[s].” Watkins initiated this FOIA action in the district court. The district court granted summary judgment to the agencies on almost all claims (and to Watkins on the remaining claims, none of which are at issue here). Watkins appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the FBI and DOJ on the adequacy of their searches and to the VA on its withholding of documents based on the deliberative process and attorney-client privileges.   The DC Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the FBI and DOJ. But we vacate the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the VA and remand for further proceedings. The VA did not satisfy its burden to show that the withheld documents are exempt from disclosure. The court concluded that the VA failed to adequately set out its basis for asserting the deliberative process and attorney-client privileges as to the withheld documents. The court wrote that because the VA offers no arguments about specific documents other than the eight that Watkins highlighted as illustrations, a blanket remand is appropriate. View "Watkins Law & Advocacy, PLLC v. DOJ" on Justia Law

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After serving in the United States Navy, Plaintiff became eligible to receive education benefits under the G.I. Bill, which he used to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Plaintiff also sought tuition assistance from his employer, Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), under the company’s Employee Education Program, but OPPD denied Plaintiff’s request because his G.I. Bill benefits fully covered his tuition expenses. Plaintiff sued, claiming that OPPD’s denial of company-provided tuition assistance based on his receipt of G.I. Bill benefits amounted to unlawful discrimination under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). The district court granted summary judgment in OPPD’s favor, and Plaintiff appealed.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that Plaintiff y has “failed to present sufficient evidence to make” the requisite “threshold showing” that his status as a military veteran was “a motivating factor” in OPPD’s decision to deny him EEP benefits. His discrimination claim under USERRA thus fails, and the district court properly granted summary judgment in OPPD’s favor. View "Andrew Kelly v. Omaha Public Power District" on Justia Law

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Appellant brought an action against the Army in district court, challenging the Secretary’s assignment of a 20% disability rating. According to Appellant the Secretary should have given him a 30% rating, consistent with the rating he had received from the Department of Veterans Affairs in a separate assessment conducted by the VA to determine his eligibility for veterans’ disability benefits. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Army.   The DC Circuit vacated the grant of summary judgment to the Army and remanded. The court concluded that the Secretary’s approach when determining Appellant’s disability rating was inconsistent with the applicable statute and regulations. The court explained that to the extent the Physical Disability Board of Review (PDBR) concluded that Appellant’s leg condition rendered him collectively unfit when considered together with his back condition, it was obligated to assign a rating to the leg condition. By extension, the Secretary, in accepting the PDBR’s recommendation to give no rating to Appellant’s leg condition, acted contrary to law insofar as the PDBR concluded that his leg condition was collectively unfitting together with his back condition. The court further explained that the fact that a condition contributes to a soldier’s unfitness is enough, and the Secretary’s apparent addition of a “significantly” criterion naturally raises questions about what degree and manner of contribution is thought to suffice, questions that the terms of the statute and regulations do not make salient. Any assumption that a medical condition, to receive a rating, must contribute “significantly” to unfitness thus is contrary to law. View "Jason Sissel v. Christine Wormuth" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, an Air Force veteran, appeals from a decision of the Physical Disability Board of Review (“Board”) declining to increase his disability rating, which would entitle him to greater benefits. The district court rejected Plaintiff’s arguments that the Board was required to conduct a physical examination before making its decision and that its decision was arbitrary and capricious.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court wrote that by arguing that he could not be taken off the List or have his temporary 50% rating lowered until the Air Force conducted a physical examination—an examination that necessarily could not occur until years after his retroactive placement on the List—Plaintiff pushes for an interpretation that would effectively grant a retroactive 50% rating for years to all individuals whose disabilities are reviewed by the Board and fall under Section 4.129. But that defies the purpose of the Board: to ensure accurate disability determinations at the time of a member’s discharge, “based on the records of the armed force concerned and such other evidence as may be presented to the” Board. The court, therefore, rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the Board was required to order a new physical examination before making its determination. Ultimately, the court concluded that its decision was supported by substantial evidence, with a “rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.” View "Blair Coleman v. Frank Kendall" on Justia Law

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The VA’s Schedule for Rating Disabilities includes diagnostic codes (DCs), each with a corresponding disability rating, 38 U.S.C. 1155. A particular veteran’s disability may not clearly fall under a delineated DC. VA regulations provide: When an unlisted condition is encountered it will be permissible to rate under a closely related disease or injury in which not only the functions affected but the anatomical localization and symptomatology are closely analogous. The VA considers the functions affected by ailments, the anatomical localization of the ailments, and the symptomatology of the ailments.Webb served in the Army, from 1968-1970, receiving an honorable discharge. Webb later developed service-connected prostate cancer, the treatment for which caused him to develop erectile dysfunction (ED). In 2015, Webb was assigned a non-compensable (zero percent) rating for his ED. The Schedule did not then include a diagnostic code for ED. The VA rated Webb’s disability by analogy to DC 7522, which provides a 20 percent disability rating for “[p]enis, deformity, with loss of erectile power.” The Board explained that DC 7522 required Webb to show “deformity of the penis with loss of erectile power.” Without such a deformity, he was not entitled to a compensable disability rating. The Veterans Court affirmed. The Federal Circuit vacated. The listed disease or injury to which a veteran’s unlisted condition is being rated by analogy must be only “closely related,” not identical. View "Webb v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs (collectively, the Officers) worked as police officers for the City of Hoover, Alabama. They also served as military reservists. Over a two-decade span, the Officers were summoned to active-duty service a combined thirteen times. While away, Hoover did not provide the Officers the same holiday pay and accrued benefits that it gave employees on paid administrative leave. This disparate treatment prompted the Officers to sue Hoover under USERRA. And it led the district court to grant summary judgment for the Officers. On appeal, Hoover argued that the Officers are not similar to employees placed on paid administrative leave. Second, Hoover asserted that military leave is not comparable to paid administrative leave.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that Hoover violated Section 4316(b)(1)(B) by not providing the Officers the same benefits on military leave that it afforded similar employees on paid administrative leave. The court concluded that the DOL’s interpretation of Section 4316(b)(1)(B) deserves deference. Thus, to the extent Congress spoke to the meaning of “status” and “pay,” the legislative history suggests that it did so in a way that defeats Hoover’s interpretation. Further, the court reasoned that had the Officers been placed on paid administrative leave instead of military leave, they would have received holiday pay and accrued benefits for each period of service, including those shorter than sixteen months. So, the district court should have found the two forms of leave comparable in duration. However, the court affirmed because the district court reached the correct conclusion. View "Thaddaeus Myrick, et al v. City of Hoover, Alabama" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff worked at Huntington Ingalls Incorporated as a sheet-metal mechanic. After leaving the company, Plaintiff complained of hearing loss. Plaintiff selected and met with an audiologist. An administrative law judge denied Plaintiff’s Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Department of Labor’s Benefits Review Board. The Board reversed its initial decision on whether Plaintiff could choose his own audiologist. The Company timely petitioned for review. The question is whether audiologists are “physicians” under Section 907(b) of LHWCA.   The Fifth Circuit denied the Company’s petition for review. The court reasoned that based on the education they receive and the role that they play in identifying and treating hearing disorders, audiologists can fairly be described as “skilled in the art of healing.” However, audiologists are not themselves medical doctors. Their work complements that of a medical doctor. But, the court wrote, Optometrists, despite lacking a medical degree, are able to administer and interpret vision tests. And based on the results of those tests, optometrists can prescribe the appropriate corrective lenses that someone with impaired vision can use to bolster his or her ability to see. Audiologists are similarly able to administer hearing tests, evaluate the resulting audiograms, and then use that information to fit a patient with hearing aids that are appropriately calibrated to the individual’s level of auditory impairment. Because the plain meaning of the regulation includes audiologists, and because that regulation is entitled to Chevron deference, audiologists are included in Section 907(b) of the LHWCA’s use of the word “physician.” View "Huntington Ingalls v. DOWCP" on Justia Law