Justia Military Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

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NOVA challenged a 2017 Veterans Administration (VA) amendment to 38 C.F.R. 3.321(b)(1), confining the preexisting regulation (as interpreted by a 2014 Federal Circuit ruling) and authorizing the VA “[t]o accord justice to the exceptional case where the schedular evaluation is inadequate to rate a single service-connected disability,” by adopting “an extra-schedular evaluation commensurate with the average impairment of earning capacity due exclusively to the disability.” The regulation does not permit the VA to award extra-schedular disability compensation by considering the synergistic impact of multiple disabilities together. The Federal Circuit upheld the regulation. The VA’s explanation for the change was adequate; the regulation is not on its face arbitrary and capricious. It does not limit “extraschedular rating to a single service-connected disability” but provides for combining multiple disabilities, but not in the manner opponents prefer. The VA explained that the amendment is consistent with the agency’s historical interpretation of the regulation and its predecessors. The VA reasonably concluded that determination of an extra-schedular rating with respect to a single disability is likely to result in a more logical and consistent system of extra-schedular rating than one in which the decision-maker must determine on an ad hoc basis whether extra-schedular rating is appropriate for the synergistic effect of combined disabilities. View "National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, Inc. v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

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Shea began serving in the Air Force in October 2006. Her pre-enlistment examination indicated a normal psychiatric condition. A January 2007 medical examination resulted in a diagnosis of an adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressed mood. Days later, Shea was struck by a truck while on base and sustained multiple physical injuries. Her subsequent medical records report anxiety, depression, and impaired memory. A medical evaluation board recommended that Shea be discharged. Shea was transferred to Dover Air Force Base, where her then-husband was stationed, to continue her treatment. A physical evaluation board determined in May 2007 that Shea’s pelvic fractures and transverse process fracture were unfitting conditions that were compensable and ratable but that her adjustment disorder with depression and anxiety was not separately unfitting nor compensable or ratable. In July 2007, Shea was discharged because of her physical disabilities. She sought benefits in October 2007. The VA granted benefits for her physical and psychiatric conditions, but rejected a request for a 2007 effective date for the psychiatric-disability benefits. The Veterans Court affirmed. The Federal Circuit vacated and remanded to allow the Veterans Court to articulate the correct legal standard in considering Shea’s October 2007 informal application for benefits. While a pro se claimant "must identify the benefit sought,” the identification need not be explicit and should be read in conjunction with other submissions and service treatment records. View "Shea v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Robinson became the Associate Director of the Phoenix Veterans Administration Health Care System in 2012, having started his VA career in 1987. Robinson was aware of scheduling issues, including that it often took more than 30 days for patients to receive new-patient appointments. In 2014, the Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs alleged that veterans died while on “secret” waitlists at the Phoenix VA. Based on an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General and the Department of Justice, Robinson’s removal was proposed for “failure to provide oversight.” The Deciding Official did not take action. Robinson remained on administrative leave for two years, returning to duty in January 2016. The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs questioned why many senior executives were placed on paid leave instead of removed from office. In March 2016, a second proposal for Robinson’s removal issued. The Deciding Official sustained all charges. Robinson was removed. The Merit Systems Protection Board affirmed the removal, finding that Robinson was negligent in the performance of his duties and failed to provide accurate information to his supervisors but did not sustain a whistleblowing retaliation charge. The Federal Circuit affirmed the decision as supported by substantial evidence, rejecting Robinson’s claim that he was treated differently than other supervisors. Robinson had notice and a pre-termination opportunity to be heard. Robinson had a duty to ensure compliance with VA policy but the record demonstrated that he did not. View "Robinson v. Department of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

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Sucic served on active duty 1973-1979 and 1982-1984. In 2007, he was granted service connection for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), effective January 2003. In 2008, Sucic requested an effective date of June 1992. After remand by the Federal Circuit, the Veterans Court entered judgment in June 2016 and issued its mandate in August 2016. Sucic died five days after the Federal Circuit’s mandate issued but before the Veterans Court vacated the Board’s decision. Sucic’s counsel did not notify the Veterans Court of his death until after the Veterans Court issued its mandate. Sucic’s counsel filed an unopposed motion to recall the Veterans Court’s judgment and remand decision and a motion to substitute Sucic’s three adult children as claimants. The Veterans Court concluded, and the Federal Circuit affirmed, that the non-dependent adult children were not eligible accrued benefits beneficiaries under 38 U.S.C. 5121(a), qualified for substitution. View "Sucic v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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While serving in the Navy, Scott developed a bilateral foot disability caused by prolonged standing. In 1973, the VA Regional Office (RO) awarded Scott service connection for bilateral pes planus (flatfoot) and granted him a 0% disability rating under DC (diagnostic code) 5276. In 1990, the RO added to Scott’s service connection hallux valgus deformity (angulation of the big toe toward the other toes) without altering his rating. In 2007, a VA medical examiner diagnosed Scott with plantar fibromas (masses of fibrous tissue in the arch of the foot) in addition to his prior diagnosis. The RO continued Scott’s 0% disability rating. In 2014, the RO increased Scott’s disability rating to 30%; the decision did not mention Scott’s plantar fibromas. In 2016, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals increased Scott’s disability rating to 50%, but did not address the effect of Scott’s plantar fibromas on his rating, finding that Scott was entitled to the rating “under DC 5276 . . . for [his] bilateral pes planus” under the benefit of the doubt rule, 38 U.S.C. 5107(b). The Board concluded that DC 5284, which broadly covers “Foot injuries, other,” without identifying any specific condition, was inapplicable because the service-connected condition, pes planus, is specifically listed. The Veterans Court affirmed. The Federal Circuit vacated. The Veterans Court improperly affirmed based on rationales the Board never provided; the Board erred by failing to consider DC 5284. Foot conditions not specifically listed in the rating schedule may be rated by analogy under DC 5284. View "Scott v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Ruel served in the Marine Corps, 1966-1969, including two tours in Vietnam; he was exposed to Agent Orange. He died in 1984. His wife, Teresa, sought benefits. In July 1984, the VA received her Form 21-534, which the VA treats as an application for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) a benefit paid to eligible survivors of veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease, and for a Death Pension, a benefit payable to a low-income, un-remarried surviving spouse of a deceased veteran with wartime service, 38 U.S.C. 5101(b)(1). The claim for pension benefits was denied based on her income; the denial did not mention a DIC claim. In response to Teresa's “Application for Burial Benefits,” the VA authorized payment of $150.00, stating: The evidence does not show that the veteran’s death was due to a service-connected condition. Teresa did not appeal. In 2009, ischemic heart disease was added to the presumptive list of diseases related to herbicide exposure while serving in Vietnam. Teresa submitted a new Form 21-534. Her claim was granted with an effective date of October 2009. Teresa sought an effective date of July 1984 arguing that the VA never adjudicated her 1984 DIC claim, which remained “pending.” The Federal Circuit reversed the Board and Veterans Court; proper notice of an explicit denial of a claim under 38 C.F.R. 3.103 requires an actual statement or otherwise clear indication of the claim being denied. View "Ruel v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Jones served in the Marine Corps, 1968-1970. A VA psychiatrist treated him and diagnosed him with PTSD in 2000. Jones formally applied for disability benefits for PTSD in 2011. In 2012, the VA Regional Office awarded him a 100% disability rating, effective April 2011, the date it received his formal application. Jones filed a notice of disagreement arguing that he should receive an earlier effective date that reflects VA medical treatment beginning in 2000. Jones asserted that he “did not file until 11 years later because the doctors did not explain to [him] what PTSD really was.” In 2015, the Board denied the claim, acknowledging the existence of “VA medical records showing treatment for mental health symptoms” in 2000, but finding that the records before it “[did] not indicate an intent to file a claim for benefits and are not considered an ‘informal claim’'.” The Veterans Court affirmed, finding no informal claim under 38 C.F.R. 3.155(a). Jones died in 2016; his wife substituted into the case, arguing that the Veterans Court applied a heightened standard to determine whether the VA was required to assist Jones in obtaining his treatment records, which might contain an earlier, informal claim. The Federal Circuit vacated the denial. The Veterans Court erred in ruling that the duty to assist only “includes obtaining records of treatment at VA facilities that are relevant to the claim.” View "Jones v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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James served on active duty during the Vietnam War. He sought service-connected disability compensation for “a lumbar spine disability and cervical spine disability, as well as an increased rating claim for pseudofolliculitis barbae.” On January 28, 2016, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals denied his claims.. On Friday, May 27, James placed his notice of appeal (NOA) in a stamped envelope addressed to the Veterans Court in the mailbox at his residence and put the flag up for collection. James left town and did not return until late on Monday, May 30. James discovered the NOA still in his mailbox and deposited it that night at the post office. The next day, the Veterans Court received and docketed James’s NOA, which bore a postmark of May 31, more than 120 days after the Board mailed its decision. The court ordered James to “show cause why his appeal should not be dismissed.” James argued that the 120-day appeal window should be equitably tolled because an errantly lowered mailbox flag constituted an extraordinary circumstance beyond his control. The Veterans Court dismissed James’s appeal as untimely. The Federal Circuit vacated. The Veterans Court erred in creating a categorical ban by holding that equitable tolling can never apply to an entire category of cases involving a fallen mailbox flag. The extraordinary circumstance element necessarily requires a case-by-case analysis and not a categorical determination. View "James v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Sharpe has been a DEA employee since 1995. Until 2008, he was also a Navy reservist. While at the DEA, Sharpe was deployed three times, twice for six months. As of 2015, Sharpe had applied for 14 GS-14 positions since 2012. Since 2009, Sharpe has been supervised by Sherman, who is responsible for recommending agents for promotion. Because he scored 91 out of 100 on his examination, Sharpe was on the Best Qualified List for every GS-14 position for which he applied, but he was only selected by Sherman three times and never as Sherman’s first-ranked agent. The Career Board often selects Sherman’s first-ranked agent, absent an agent requiring a lateral transfer from abroad or for hardship. In 2015, Sharpe requested corrective action under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), 38 U.S.C. 4311(a), asserting his non-selection was motivated by his military status and that Sherman was hostile towards reservist. Six other current and former reservists working as agents in San Diego, including Sorrells, also filed USERRA claims. Before the Merit Systems Protection Board Sharpe unsuccessfully sought to introduce an email sent to Sorrells by Tomaski, who reported directly to Sherman. At the hearing, Sharpe was not allowed to question Sherman about the email. The Federal Circuit vacated the MSPB’s denial of corrective action. Evidence of the Tomaski email and of Sherman’s response to it is relevant to Sherman’s potential hostility towards others’ military or USERRA activity. View "Sharpe v. Department of Justice" on Justia Law

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Procopio served aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid in 1964-1967. In July 1966, the Intrepid was deployed in the waters offshore the landmass of the Republic of Vietnam, including its territorial sea. Procopio sought entitlement to service connection for diabetes mellitus in 2006 and for prostate cancer in 2007 but was denied service connection for both in 2009. The Federal Circuit reversed, holding that the unambiguous language of the Agent Orange Act, 38 U.S.C. 1116, entitles Procopio to a presumption of service connection for his prostate cancer and diabetes mellitus. The term “in the Republic of Vietnam,” unambiguously includes the territorial sea under all available international law. Congress indicated those who served in the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of the “Republic of Vietnam” are entitled to section 1116’s presumption if they meet the section’s other requirements. View "Procopio v. Wilkie" on Justia Law