Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
Hansen served in the Army National Guard for six years, which included, at the start of his service in 1959, 182 days of active duty for training. Hansen died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1998. In 2009, his widow applied to the VA for benefits under 38 U.S.C. 1310(a), which provides that “[w]hen any veteran dies after December 31, 1956, from a service-connected or compensable disability, the Secretary shall pay dependency and indemnity compensation to such veteran’s surviving spouse, children, and parents.” A 2008 regulation declares that “the development of [ALS] manifested at any time after discharge or release from active military, naval, or air service is sufficient to establish service connection for that disease.” 38 C.F.R. 3.318(a) (ALS Rule). The Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the Veterans Court held that Hansen’s “active duty for training” service does not qualify as active duty, and denied the benefits claim. The Federal Circuit affirmed. The 38 U.S.C.101(24) definition of “active military, naval, or air service” has been interpreted as excluding training in these circumstances. View "Hansen-Sorensen v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

by
Cook served on active duty in the Navy, 1972-1973. Cook’s service records indicate that he experienced back pain. In 2000, Cook sought service connection for back problems and later filed a claim for total disability based on individual unemployability (TDIU), also back-related. The regional office (RO) denied both claims. Cook appealed and testified at a Board hearing in 2012. The Board remanded; the RO again denied both claims. Cook again appealed and requested an additional hearing to present further evidence. The Board denied Cook that additional hearing and denied both of his claims. The Veterans Court, upon joint motion, vacated and remanded because the Board did not adequately explain its decision. On remand, Cook again requested another Board hearing. The Board denied a hearing and denied Cook’s claims for service connection and TDIU. The Veterans Court vacated and ordered a hearing. The Federal Circuit affirmed. The Veterans’ Judicial Review Act codified a veteran’s longstanding right to a Board of Veterans’ Appeals hearing, 38 U.S.C. 7107(b). The courts concluded that the statute entitles an appellant to an opportunity for a hearing whenever the Board decides an appeal, including on remand. View "Cook v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

by
Garcia served in the Army from 1952-1954. The military’s records of his medical treatment during service were among those destroyed in a fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. The record of his medical examination upon leaving the service was not destroyed and reveals a normal psychiatric state and no severe illnesses or injuries. Garcia saw Dr. Smoker, in 1965 for a burn from a welding accident. In 1969, Dr. Smoker diagnosed Garcia with, and prescribed medication for, paranoid schizophrenia. In 2002, Garcia sought disability benefit, alleging service connection of disability-causing paranoid schizophrenia. The regional office denied the claim. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals remanded for a VA psychiatric examination. Although García claimed to have been seen twice for his condition while in service, a VA examiner found it “impossible to say, without resorting to mere speculation, as to whether this veteran’s schizophrenia, paranoid type actually started in Service, without more documentation and records.” The previous denial was “confirmed.” Garcia collaterally challenged the 2006 Board decision, alleging clear and unmistakable error (CUE). The Board and Veterans Court rejected Garcia’s CUE arguments. The Federal Circuit affirmed, upholding the Veterans Court’s application of 38 C.F.R. 20.1409(c) to bar a due process allegation of CUE. View "García v. WIlkie" on Justia Law

by
Robinson served in the Marine Corps in the 1960s, with a deployment in Vietnam. He subsequently experienced heart problems. In 20016, Robinson saw his VA cardiologist, Dr. Sadoughian, who recommended diagnostic testing, but the testing was not performed. Nine months later, Robinson returned after a week in the hospital with blood clots in his leg. Dr. Sadoughian again recommended testing. Robinson received the prescribed testing in April 2007, 14 months after his initial recommendation. The results indicated “[c]oronary artery disease with prior inferior wall myocardial infarction.” In August 2010 the VA amended its regulations to add coronary artery disease to its list of conditions that are presumptively service-connected for veterans who were exposed to certain herbicides, 38 C.F.R. 3.309(e). In 2011, the VA retroactively granted disability benefits to Robinson for that disease following a “Nehmer” review. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals denied Robinson’s claim for an earlier effective date because the April 2007 test results were the earliest medical evidence demonstrating that he satisfied the criteria the disability rating. Robinson argued that he should not be penalized for the delay in scheduling tests and that he would have received an earlier effective date if the VA had provided him with prompt treatment as required by section 17.33(a)(2). The Board concluded that section 17.33 applies only to treatment and has no bearing on effective date criteria. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed, noting that the record did not indicate what caused the testing delay or whether Robinson would have satisfied the disability rating requirements earlier. View "Robinson v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

by
Cousin served in the Army, 1951-1953. His entrance examination showed normal findings as to his back. In service, he injured his back while lifting cans; a month later, he complained of back pain. He was diagnosed with a mild back strain and placed on medically restricted duty. In 1952, his back condition was noted to have improved, and he was removed from restricted duty. Records from 1953 note back pain before service; an x-ray showed a “pedicle defect L5” and “spondylolysis.” He was placed on a permanent profile for a “weak back.” An examination report of his discharge noted his back had been taped in 1952 and that he was then asymptomatic. In 1954, Cousin unsuccessfully sought disability compensation for his back condition. Between 1979-2009, Cousin filed three unsuccessful applications to reopen that claim. In 2012, Cousin filed another application. In 2013, the regional office granted him service connection for a back disability effective January 2012. Cousin filed a Notice of Disagreement, arguing that an earlier effective date was warranted because there was clear and unmistakable error (CUE) in the prior denials. The Veterans Court upheld the denial, finding the Board “offered a plausible explanation for why the RO may have discounted the 1953 records.” The Federal Circuit reversed. Given the proper legal interpretation of defect in the regulation then in effect and the government’s factual concessions, the regional office could not, without error, have determined that spondylolysis was a “defect.” The 1954 decision contained CUE.VA View "Cousin v. Wilkie" on Justia Law