Justia U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Military Law
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Murphy served in the Army, 1971-1974. In 2003, he sought disability benefits for PTSD; the VA regional office (RO) denied this claim because Murphy lacked a PTSD diagnosis. A private doctor had diagnosed Murphy with schizophrenia in 1982. In 2006, Murphy submitted another claim for disabilities, including schizophrenia. He requested that the RO reopen his PTSD claim. The RO denied the claim for schizophrenia for failure to show service connection and declined to reopen the PTSD claim for lack of material evidence. In 2007-2012, the RO denied multiple requests to reopen both claims.A 2012 request to reopen listed only PTSD. The VA physician found no PTSD but noted the schizophrenia diagnosis. The RO denied Murphy’s request to reopen his PTSD claim. Murphy filed a Notice of Disagreement. The cover page referred to PTSD; a handwritten attachment mentions “schizophrenia” and “PTSD” multiple times. His Form 9 included numerous mentions of both “PTSD” and “schizophrenia.” The RO determined that Murphy was also seeking to reopen his schizophrenia claim but denied that request for lack of new and material evidence. Murphy did not appeal. The Board remanded the PTSD claim; the RO maintained its denial.The Veterans Court determined that the Board correctly found it lacked jurisdiction over the schizophrenia claim, which was a request to reopen, not an initial claim. The Federal Circuit affirmed. Murphy’s request to reopen cannot be construed as seeking to reopen his schizophrenia claim. Although the lenient-claim-scope rule applies to requests to reopen, Murphy demonstrated an understanding that the conditions would be addressed separately. View "Murphy v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Perry served in the Wisconsin Army National Guard from January 1977 to March 1977, with active duty for training in February-March 1977. Active duty for training is “full-time duty in the Armed Forces performed by Reserves for training purposes,” 38 U.S.C. 101(22). Medical Board examiners at his March 1977 separation opined that enuresis and incontinence existed prior to service. Perry died in 2014. There was no claim for service-connected disability during his lifetime.The Board of Veterans’ Appeals held that Mrs. Perry was not eligible for nonservice-connected death pension benefits because Perry did not have active duty service during a period of war nor did he have a service-connected disability, as required by 38 U.S.C. 1541, that Mr. Perry did not attain veteran status, and that he “was not service-connected for any disability at the time of his death, and there is no evidence that his death was in any way related to" his 1977 military service. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed. Service in the state National Guard including a period of active duty for training, without disability incurred or aggravated in line of duty, does not achieve “veteran” status for these purposes. View "Perry v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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The National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates (NOVA), sought review under 38 U.S.C. 502. The Knee Joint Stability Rule, promulgated in 2018 and set forth in the Veterans Affairs Adjudication Procedures Manual, assigns a joint instability rating under Diagnostic Code (DC) 5257, 38 C.F.R. 4.71a, based on the amount of movement that occurs within the joint. The Knee Replacement Rule provides that evaluation under DC 5055, 38 C.F.R. 4.71a, is not available for partial knee replacement claims. The Replacement Rule was published in the Federal Register in 2015, stating that section 4.71a was amended to explain that “‘prosthetic replacement’ means a total, not a partial, joint replacement.” It was published in a 2016 Manual provision, which informs regional office staff that evaluation under DC 5055 is not available for partial knee replacement claims filed on or after July 16, 2015.The Federal Circuit referred the case for adjudication on the merits. NOVA has standing because it has veteran members who are adversely affected by the Rules. The Manual provision is an interpretive rule reviewable under 38 U.S.C. 502 and constitutes final agency action. The Knee Replacement Rule is a final agency action. The merits panel will determine whether the Manual provision or the Federal Register publication constitutes the reviewable agency action. The challenge is timely under the six-year statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. 2401(a); Federal Circuit Rule 15(f), establishing a 60-day time limit for bringing section 502 petitions, is invalid. View "National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, Inc. v. Secretary of Veterans' Affairs" on Justia Law

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Veterans sought certification for the class of veterans whose disability claims had not been resolved by the Board of Veterans Appeals within one year of the filing of a Notice of Disagreement (NOD), requesting judicial action to compel the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to decide all pending appeals within one year of receipt of a timely NOD. The Veterans Court requested that they separate or limit the requested class action into issues that meet the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2) “commonality” standard. The veterans declined, stating that “systemic delay” exists in the VA claims system, and broad judicial remedy is required.The Veterans Court denied the requested class certification. While the case was pending, the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, 131 Stat. 1105 purportedly improved processing times by allowing claimants to choose: higher-level review, a supplemental claim, board review with a hearing and opportunity to submit additional evidence, board review without a hearing, but with an opportunity to submit additional evidence, or board review without a hearing or additional evidence, based on their priorities on appeal.The Federal Circuit affirmed the denial of class certification, citing the lack of proof of commonality. When Congress has crafted a comprehensive remedial structure, that structure warrants evaluation in practice before judicial intervention is contemplated. View "Monk v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Mote served in the Air Force, 1961-1965, participating in missions to Vietnam, where Agent Orange was deployed. Mote later developed coronary artery disease and lung cancer. In 2010, Mote filed a disability claim based. In 2013, Mote filed his Notice of Disagreement with the denial of that claim. He died months later. Mrs. Mote substituted for his claim and filed a dependency-and-indemnity compensation claim. The VA denied Mrs. Mote’s claim in 2015; she filed her Notice of Disagreement and requested a Board of Veterans’ Appeals “Travel Board hearing.”Mote sought mandamus relief, 28 U.S.C. 1651, alleging unreasonable delay. The Veterans Court denied the petition, applying the “Costanza” standard. The government claimed, due to limited resources, it “could not predict how long” Mote might have to wait for a hearing. The Federal Circuit consolidated her appeal with others and held that the Veterans Court should use the Telecommunications Research & Action Center v. FCC (TRAC) standard to evaluate unreasonable-delay mandamus petitions rather than the Costanza standard. On remand, Mote requested a “reasoned decision” from the Board (within 45 days) and periodic progress reports. In March 2019. the Board scheduled her Travel Board hearing for May 2019. The Veterans Court dismissed Mrs. Mote’s mandamus petition without applying the TRAC standard. The Board subsequently remanded for further factual findings.The Federal Circuit again remanded, for a TRAC analysis, noting that Mote sought progress reports, in addition to a decision, and that the Veterans Court was not powerless to fashion other relief, such as a more lenient, specific, deadline. Whether a delay is so egregious as to justify the extraordinary writ depends on issues that are likely to arise frequently among veterans. The Veterans Court is uniquely well-positioned to address these issues first. View "Mote v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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John served in the Army in the 1960s. In 1972, John and Roberta married. In 2001, they separated. In 2005, a New York court issued a Separation Judgment, requiring John to pay Roberta $300 per month in spousal maintenance. In 2006, the VA granted John service connection for various disabilities; he began receiving monthly compensation. The New York court held a hearing where both parties appeared with counsel with a proposed settlement. That Stipulation provided that no later than December 2006 John was to pay Roberta $7,000 for past and future maintenance, health insurance, and other obligations. John made the payment. In 2010, following John’s relocation, a Pennsylvania state court issued a Divorce Decree.In 2008, Roberta had filed a VA claim for apportionment, 38 U.S.C. 5307, of John’s disability benefits. John objected, arguing only that the 2006 Stipulation “precluded” the claim. The VA denied Roberta’s claim, despite her demonstrated financial need, concluding she had “voluntarily renounced" maintenance or support. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals granted Roberta special apportionment from the 2008 date of her claim until the date of her 2010 divorce. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed. A state court domestic relations separation agreement plays no role in VA’s determination of entitlement to special apportionment. John’s remedy lay in state court where he could sue for breach of contract. Special apportionment turns not on the veteran’s degree of support but on the dependent’s showing of hardship. View "Batcher v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Graham served in the Marine Corps from 1967-1970 and has been receiving disability compensation benefits since 2001. The VA regional office (RO) informed Graham in 2009 that authorities had identified him as a fugitive felon and the subject of an outstanding warrant issued in 1992. That warrant was withdrawn in February 2009. In May 2009, the RO issued a rating decision that retroactively discontinued Graham’s compensation from December 2001 through February 2009, due to his then-fugitive felon status, and informed Graham that he had been improperly paid $199,158.70 and that his monthly compensation would be partially withheld to pay back the debt.Graham appointed Gumpenberger as his representative on appeal and signed a direct-pay agreement stating that Gumpenberger’s fee would be “20 percent of all past-due benefits awarded … as a result of winning … as provided in 38 C.F.R. 14.636.” In 2013, the Board reversed the RO’s debt ruling, finding that Graham was not a fugitive felon for VA purposes because he had never been aware of the outstanding warrant. The VA had recouped $65,464 from Graham’s monthly benefits. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed the RO’s determination that Gumpenberger was entitled to a fee of $13,092.80. Although the total debt invalidated was $199,158.70, the past-due benefit, per 38 U.S.C. 5904(d)(1), being awarded was $65,464. View "Gumpenberger v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Garvey served in the Army, 1966-1970. While posted in Germany, Garvey was punished for “disorderly conduct.” Garvey was posted to Vietnam, where he was convicted by special courts-martial of possessing four pounds of cannabis with intent to sell and of being absent without leave three times. Garvey was discharged as unfit for service with an “Undesirable Discharge.” He waived consideration of his case before a board of officers and acknowledged that he “may be ineligible for many or all benefits as a veteran.” In 1977, under the Special Discharge Review Program for Vietnam-era service members, Garvey’s discharge status was upgraded to “Under Honorable Conditions (General).” In 1978, a Discharge Review Board found that Garvey would not have been entitled to an upgrade under generally applicable standards. Garvey died in 2010.His widow applied for dependency and indemnity compensation and death pension benefits. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed the denial of her claim; 38 C.F.R. 3.12(d)(4) is not contrary to 38 U.S.C. 5303, which is not the exclusive test for benefits eligibility. A former service member is ineligible for benefits unless he is a “veteran.” Under 38 U.S.C. 101(2), to be a veteran, a former service member must have been discharged “under conditions other than dishonorable.”The VA was authorized to define a discharge for willful and persistent misconduct as a discharge under “dishonorable conditions.” View "Garvey v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Burkhart is the widow of U.S. Army veteran David, who served honorably in the Korean War. He had no service-connected disabilities. In the late 1990s, he was admitted to a VA nursing facility, where he died. Burkhart filed a claim for dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) benefits under 38 U.S.C. 1151, which provides for compensation related to the death or injury of a veteran in certain circumstances while the veteran was under VA care “as if such additional disability or death were service-connected.” Having determined that David’s death was due to an event “not reasonably foreseeable,” the VA granted DIC benefits.In 2007, Burkhart obtained a certificate of eligibility (COE) for home loan guaranty benefits available under chapter 37 but never finalized a loan. In 2013, she requested a new COE for a guaranty. The VA determined that she was ineligible. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals found that home loan guaranty benefits are available only to “the surviving spouse of any veteran . . . who died from a service-connected disability,” 38 U.S.C. 3701(b)(2). The Veterans Court affirmed, requesting requests for equitable relief. The Veterans Court reasoned that an “incontestability provision” (section 3721) gives only lenders receive the privilege of estoppel with respect to COEs. The Federal Circuit affirmed. Burkhart is not eligible for home loan guaranty benefits under any of the cited statutes and the Veterans Court lacked the power to grant her equitable relief. View "Burkhart v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Lang served in the Marine Corps in 1966-1968 and was badly injured in Vietnam. Lang sought psychiatric treatment at the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center. In 1995, an examiner explained: [T]he Veteran from a physical standpoint is permanently and totally disabled from any type of gainful employment [and] is also socially handicapped to a severe degree . . . . He has a very severe form of PTSD that he has treated himself with alcohol abuse... not to mention the horrendous physical deformities. Lang was granted a 10% disability rating in 1996. Lang did not appeal but continued to receive treatment.In 2014, Lang moved to revise the 1996 rating, citing clear and unmistakable error (CUE). The Veterans Court affirmed the denial of Lang’s request for an adjustment, stating that Lang failed to prove that the “VA had sufficient knowledge of the VA treatment records . . . to trigger the Board’s duty to make the requested findings.” The Federal Circuit vacated. Lang’s post-decision medical records were constructively received by the VA adjudicator before the expiration of the one-year appeal period. A claim remains open until the VA determines whether post-decision evidence received within the one-year appeal period is “new and material.” The Board made no such determination as to Lang’s post-decision medical records, so the 1996 rating decision was not final and a CUE analysis was not required. View "Lang v. Wilkie" on Justia Law