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

Articles Posted in Military Law
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Vollono served on active duty in the Navy, 1996-1997 and 2001-2005. Vollono’s second stint was compulsory as a condition of his Naval Academy education. Vollono used chapter 30 Montgomery G.I. Bill educational benefits to pursue post-graduate education, 38 U.S.C. 3001, 3011. In 2009, the VA notified Vollono that he might be eligible for chapter 33 Post-9/11 G.I. Bill educational assistance. Vollono was mistakenly found eligible and elected to receive Post-9/11 benefits in lieu of Montgomery benefits to complete post-graduate education. In 2011, the VA regional office (RO) notified Vollono that he had erroneously received $60,507.08 in benefits, because his post-9/11 service was obligatory, precluding his eligibility for such benefits. The VA did not recoup the benefits. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals and Veterans Court affirmed the decision.The Board found that Vollono did not waive entitlement to Montgomery benefits; the RO found Vollono eligible for $29,107 in Montgomery benefits for completing his studies but found that it could not release payment of these funds that would be duplicative of his previous receipt of Post-9/11 benefits. The Board agreed, reasoning that 38 C.F.R. 21.7143(a) and 38 U.S.C. 3033 preclude the payment of duplicative educational benefits regardless of current eligibility. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed. Awarding Montgomery benefits to Vollono would “lead to an absurd result of placing the appellant in a better position than that of those worthy veterans who were actually eligible for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.” View "Vollono v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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The statutory presumption of soundness states: [E]very veteran shall be taken to have been in sound condition when examined, accepted, and enrolled for service, except as to defects, infirmities, or disorders noted at the time ... or where clear and unmistakable evidence demonstrates that the injury or disease existed before acceptance and enrollment and was not aggravated by such service, 38 U.S.C. 1111. The VA’s prior section 1111 implementing regulation did not require clear and unmistakable evidence of lack of aggravation by service for rebuttal but required only clear and unmistakable evidence that the disorder “existed prior [to service].” In 2003, the VA invalidated the regulation for conflicting with the statutory language and amended the regulation to require evidence of both preexisting condition and no aggravation, 70 Fed. Reg. 23,027, 23,028. The Federal Circuit affirmed.Veterans, whose claims for disability benefits were denied decades ago, sought revision of the denial decisions, alleging that the VA had committed clear and unmistakable error (CUE). The Veterans Court affirmed the Board of Veterans’ Appeals’ denials of the motions, reasoning that the VA did not commit a clear and unmistakable legal error when it faithfully applied the version of the presumption of soundness regulation that existed at the time. The Federal Circuit affirmed. A legal-based CUE requires a misapplication of the law as it was understood at that time, and cannot arise from a subsequent change in interpretation in the law. View "George v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Santos’s affiliation with NASA started in 1997. In 2018, Santos, then a NASA mechanical engineer and a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, was transferred to a new division, under the supervision of Balles, chief of the Ground Systems Branch of the Commercial Division. Despite receiving multiple accolades for his service in previous years, Santos began receiving letters of instruction and reprimand under Balles, alleging deficient performance. Although Balles maintained that she had no problems with Santos’s mandatory military obligations, the timing of many letters coincided with Santos’s requests for military leave. The letters emphasized Santos’s ability to “report to work in a timely manner and maintain regular attendance at work.” After months of difficulties, Balles formally placed Santos on a performance improvement plan (PIP) and later issued a notice of proposed removal. The Merit Systems Protection Board upheld his removal, rejecting Santos’s claim under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), 38 U.S.C. 4331(a).The Federal Circuit vacated. The Board’s decision to not consider Santos’s allegation that he should never have been placed on a PIP was based on a misinterpretation of 5 U.S.C. 4302(c)(6). The events leading to Santos’s PIP may be directly relevant to Santos’s ability to satisfy his initial burden under USERRA. View "Santos v. National Aeronautics and Space Administration" on Justia Law

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Euzebio served in the U.S. Navy, 1966-1969, including two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was exposed to Agent Orange. In 2009, Euzebio began experiencing problems swallowing. In 2011, medical examinations and testing by private physicians indicated that he had benign thyroid nodules. The Veterans Court affirmed the Board of Veterans’ Appeals’ denial of Euzebio’s entitlement to service connection for a thyroid condition due to exposure to Agent Orange. The Board noted that the Agent Orange Act requires that when the Secretary determines that a presumption of service connection based on herbicide exposure is not warranted for certain conditions, he must consider reports of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), 38 U.S.C. 1116; Euzebio’s thyroid disorder was not among the conditions listed by the Secretary for presumptive service-connection.The Federal Circuit vacated. The Board is required to consider relevant documents within its constructive possession; all relevant and reasonably connected VA-generated documents are part of the record, constructively known by the VA adjudicator. The Veterans Court applied an erroneous legal standard when it concluded the Board did not have constructive possession of the NAS Update 2014. While the VA has not published that Update in the Federal Register, it appears on its website. Update 2014 includes statements that, “thyroid conditions overall showed an indication of increased risk with herbicide exposure” and that “consistent observations of exposures to herbicide agents” indicated that they were “related to perturbations of thyroid function.” View "Euzebio v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Giles served on active Army duty, 1976-1982. He first claimed a service-connected nervous condition with the VA in March 1984; he was diagnosed with a personality disorder. While his claim was pending, he reported for Reserve training in June 1984. He soon was hospitalized, was diagnosed with organic delusional syndrome, and was discharged in November 1984. The VA denied his claim. In 1985, Giles was hospitalized, with an admitting diagnosis of schizophrenia. Upon discharge, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The VA denied his request to reopen. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals affirmed in 1987, finding that “[a]n acquired psychiatric disorder was neither incurred in nor aggravated by service nor may a psychosis be presumed to have been incurred in active military service.”In 1995, Giles claimed service-connected PTSD. The VA awarded him service connection for bipolar disorder, effective in 1995. In 2012, Giles filed a request to revise the 1987 Board decision for clear and unmistakable error because the Board failed to recognize Giles’s claim on a presumptive basis for his 1984 diagnosis. The Board rejected the motion, stating, that 1987 regulations provided that the presumption of service incurrence of certain diseases, such as psychosis, did not apply to a period of active duty for training; a person serving on active duty for training was not considered a “veteran” during that service. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed; “psychoses,” under 38 C.F.R. 3.309(a), refers to a category of diseases; whether diseases falling within this category are the same is a factual question outside of the courts' jurisdiction. View "Giles v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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Sharifi alleges the U.S. Army took his land when it built Combat Outpost Millet in Afghanistan in 2010. The government asserted that Sharifi’s Fifth Amendment complaint was “vague and ambiguous” because it did not specifically identify the property interest that the government allegedly took, that Sharifi had not provided a legal description of the land, a deed, or other documents that would allow the government to identify the location. The Claims Court instructed Sharifi to file an amended complaint. Sharifi alleged that government records, verified by the District Governor of Arghandab, showed that his grandfather owned the land on which the Army built COP Millet: Ownership of the land passed to Sharifi and his siblings, who subdivided the land by a 2004 inheritance agreement. The government submitted six declarations, including several witness declarations and an expert declaration on Afghan law. The Claims Court dismissed Sharifi’s amended complaint for failure to show a cognizable property interest.The Federal Circuit affirmed. The government records attached to Sharifi’s amended complaint and the 2004 inheritance agreement do not constitute proof of land ownership under the laws of Afghanistan. Even accepting as true all factual allegations in Sharifi’s amended complaint, the amended complaint does not contain sufficient facts to state a plausible takings claim. View "Sharifi v. United States" on Justia 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