Articles Posted in Military Law

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Four veterans appealed the VA's denial of their claims for service-connected disability benefits. Based on delays in their cases, they unsuccessfully sought writs of mandamus from the Veterans Court. The Federal Circuit remanded two cases, citing its 2018 decision, Martin v. O’Rourke, so that the mandamus petitions may be considered under the TRAC standard: “whether the agency’s delay is so egregious as to warrant mandamus.” The TRAC standard involves six factors: the time agencies take to make decisions must be governed by a “rule of reason”; where Congress has provided a timetable or other indication of the speed with which it expects the agency to proceed, that statutory scheme may supply content for this rule of reason; delays that might be reasonable in the sphere of economic regulation are less tolerable when human health and welfare are at stake; the court should consider the effect of expediting delayed action on agency activities of a higher or competing priority; the court should also consider the nature and extent of the interests prejudiced by delay; and the court need not find “any impropriety lurking behind agency lassitude” to hold that agency action is unreasonably delayed. One veteran had died, rendering his appeal moot and another had his claim for benefits granted. View "Rose v. O'Rourke" on Justia Law

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The VA denied the veterans’ claims for service-connected disability benefits. Based on delays in their cases, they sought writs of mandamus in the Veterans Court. The Federal Circuit vacated that court’s denial of relief, finding that the court did not apply the proper standard. The court noted the significant delays that occur in most cases and that the government has not explained the cause of the delays; the petitions alleged that a veteran whose disability benefits are denied waits, on average, 1448 days after the denial for a ruling on an appeal.” Whether the agency’s delay is so egregious as to warrant mandamus under the “TRAC” standard requires consideration of six factors: the time agencies take to make decisions must be governed by a “rule of reason”; where Congress has provided an indication of the speed with which it expects the agency to proceed, that statutory scheme may supply content for this rule of reason; delays that might be reasonable in the sphere of economic regulation are less tolerable when human health and welfare are at stake; the court should consider the effect of expediting delayed action on agency activities of a higher or competing priority and the nature and extent of the interests prejudiced by delay; and the court need not find “any impropriety lurking behind agency lassitude” in order to hold that agency action is unreasonably delayed. View "Martin v. O'Rourke" on Justia Law

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Acree served on active duty in the Navy from 1985-1989 and 2007-2008. He was deployed to Iraq and received Seabee Combat Warfare Medals. Acree was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while serving in Iraq. After leaving the service, Acree filed several claims for service-connected disability benefits and appealed 11 claims to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. A representative from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization was present with Acree at the board hearing. Acree said “yes” when asked to withdraw seven issues. The board listed the four issues that would be discussed and would “continue to be in appellate status” and asked the DAV representative whether it had “correctly identified the issues.” The representative responded: “Yes.” The board remanded four and dismissed seven claims. Acree appealed, arguing that a veteran’s withdrawal of a claim “is not effective unless the withdrawal ‘is explicit, unambiguous, and done with a full understanding of the consequences’” and that since he “ha[d] a long history of taking psychotropic medications,” the hearing officer should have inquired as to his capacity to appreciate the consequences of dismissing the claims. The Veterans Court affirmed, citing the hearing transcript. The Federal Circuit vacated. Precedent (DeLisio) explicitly states that a withdrawal is effective only if undertaken with “a full understanding of the consequences of such action on the part of the [veteran].” The Veterans Court was required to make that determination even though a DAV representative was present. View "Acree v. O'Rourke" on Justia Law

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Robinson, a Marine Corps veteran, served in Vietnam from 1966-1969 and later had coronary problems. He sought treatment at a VA medical facility. In 2006, a VA cardiologist recommended that he undergo certain medical testing. The tests, performed 14 months later, revealed that Robinson suffered from left ventricular diastolic dysfunction. The VA granted Robinson a 60% disability rating effective April 2, 2007, the date he underwent cardiac testing. The Board denied Robinson entitlement to a higher rating. In the Veterans Court, Robinson argued for the first time—through the same counsel that represented him before the Board—that his rating should have been assigned an effective date in February 2006, when his doctor ordered tests. The court did not identify any error by the Board but “set aside” its decision and remanded for it to address Robinson’s argument in the first instance. Robinson sought attorney fees, arguing that, because he secured remand, he was a prevailing party under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The Federal Circuit affirmed denial of Robinson’s application. This particular remand did not confer prevailing party status on Robinson because it “was not predicated on administrative error by the Board,” did not materially alter the legal relationship of the parties, and was solely to allow the Board to consider an issue first raised on appeal. View "Robinson v. O'Rourke" on Justia Law

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Robinson, a Marine Corps veteran, served in Vietnam from 1966-1969 and later had coronary problems. He sought treatment at a VA medical facility. In 2006, a VA cardiologist recommended that he undergo certain medical testing. The tests, performed 14 months later, revealed that Robinson suffered from left ventricular diastolic dysfunction. The VA granted Robinson a 60% disability rating effective April 2, 2007, the date he underwent cardiac testing. The Board denied Robinson entitlement to a higher rating. In the Veterans Court, Robinson argued for the first time—through the same counsel that represented him before the Board—that his rating should have been assigned an effective date in February 2006, when his doctor ordered tests. The court did not identify any error by the Board but “set aside” its decision and remanded for it to address Robinson’s argument in the first instance. Robinson sought attorney fees, arguing that, because he secured remand, he was a prevailing party under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The Federal Circuit affirmed denial of Robinson’s application. This particular remand did not confer prevailing party status on Robinson because it “was not predicated on administrative error by the Board,” did not materially alter the legal relationship of the parties, and was solely to allow the Board to consider an issue first raised on appeal. View "Robinson v. O'Rourke" on Justia Law

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Burris’s father served on active duty in Vietnam, 1969-1971, and was granted a permanent and total disability rating for schizophrenia effective 2000. Because of his father’s disability, Burris was eligible to receive Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA) benefits. In October 2010, Burris, then 35-years old, elected to receive retroactive benefits for a period 2002-2010. During a portion of that period, Burris was enrolled as an undergraduate student. Burris’s studies were interrupted in 2005 when his mother unexpectedly passed away. Burris became the primary caretaker for his father, who suffered from prostate cancer. Burris was unable to attend school until his DEA eligibility had expired. The VA denied Burris’s request for an extension of his eligibility period, citing VA regulations that prohibit extensions for dependents “beyond age 31,” 38 C.F.R. 21.3041(g)(1), (g)(2), 21.3043(b), and refused to reimburse Burris for educational expenses incurred 2002-2004 because DEA benefits cannot be paid for expenses incurred more than one year prior to the application date. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals and Veterans Court affirmed the denial of equitable relief. The Federal Circuit affirmed. The Veterans Court lacks jurisdiction to grant equitable relief in these circumstances, 38 U.S.C. 7261. View "Burris v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Saunders served on active duty in the Army, 1987-1994. Saunders did not previously experience knee problems but, during her service, sought treatment for knee pain and was diagnosed with patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS). Saunders’s exit examination reflected normal lower extremities but noted Saunders’s history of knee swelling. The VA denied Saunders’s 1994 claim for disability compensation because she failed to report for a medical examination. In 2008, Saunders filed a new claim, which was denied. In 2011, a VA examiner noted that Saunders reported bilateral knee pain while running, squatting, bending, and climbing but had no anatomic abnormality, weakness, or reduced range of motion. Saunders had functional limitations on walking, was unable to stand for more than a few minutes, and sometimes required a cane or brace. The examiner concluded that Saunders’s knee condition was at least as likely as not caused by, or a result of, Saunders’s military service but stated there was no pathology to render a diagnosis. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals and Veterans Court rejected her claim under 38 U.S.C. 1110. The Federal Circuit reversed; “disability” in section 1110 refers to the functional impairment of earning capacity, not the underlying cause, which need not be diagnosed. Pain alone can serve as a functional impairment and qualify as a disability, no matter the underlying cause. View "Saunders v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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From 1968-1991, Lledo was employed at the Subic Bay, Philippines U.S. Navy Public Works Center, initially as an Apprentice (electrician) “excepted service – indefinite appointment.” Lledo resigned with the designated severance pay in 1991, having worked in various positions, finally as a Telephone Installation and Repair Foreman. In 2014, Lledo applied for deferred retirement benefits under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and requested to make a post-employment deposit into the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund (CSRDF). The Office of Personnel Management denied the requests. The Merit Systems Protection Board affirmed, stating that all of Lledo’s appointments, including his final position, were either not-to-exceed appointments or indefinite appointments in the excepted service; “[w]hile [Lledo] has shown that he had sufficient creditable federal service, he has failed to show that any of that service was performed in a position covered under the [Act].” The Federal Circuit affirmed. Under 5 U.S.C. 8333(a)–(b), to qualify for a CSRS retirement annuity, an employee must have performed at least five years of creditable civilian service, and must have served at least one of his last two years of federal service in a covered position, subject to the Act. Temporary, intermittent, term, and excepted indefinite appointments are not covered positions; substantial evidence supports the conclusion that Lledo’s service was excluded from CSRDF coverage. View "Lledo v. Office of Personnel Management" on Justia Law

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Holton supervised a Portsmouth Naval Shipyard crane team that was moving submarine covers. Each unit weighed roughly 60,000 pounds. Holton briefed the crew and gave control over the crane to the authorized rigger, then left the crane to supervise preparation of the landing area. From this position, Holton could not see the crane’s boom. Holton’s crew had previously performed the operation, which involved a tight curve, without incident. The crane traveled too far on the inside of the curve; its boom struck Building 343, causing $30,000 in damage. Shipyard Instructions allow drug testing of employees after an accident causing damage in excess of $10,000, when “their actions are reasonably suspected of having caused or contributed to an accident.” The executive director authorized drug testing of the entire team. Holton took the test, certifying that the drug-testing contractor took the proper steps. Holton’s sample tested positive for marijuana twice. The Executive Director removed him. The Merit Systems Protection Board affirmed, finding that the Navy’s failure to provide Holton with advance written notice of why he was being tested, as required by regulation, was harmless because it did not change the outcome. The Federal Circuit affirmed. There was reasonable suspicion that Holton, who briefed the crew, caused or contributed to the accident; the drug test was properly administered and did not violate Holton’s constitutional rights or the regulation's standard. View "Holton v. Department of the Navy" on Justia Law

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Holton supervised a Portsmouth Naval Shipyard crane team that was moving submarine covers. Each unit weighed roughly 60,000 pounds. Holton briefed the crew and gave control over the crane to the authorized rigger, then left the crane to supervise preparation of the landing area. From this position, Holton could not see the crane’s boom. Holton’s crew had previously performed the operation, which involved a tight curve, without incident. The crane traveled too far on the inside of the curve; its boom struck Building 343, causing $30,000 in damage. Shipyard Instructions allow drug testing of employees after an accident causing damage in excess of $10,000, when “their actions are reasonably suspected of having caused or contributed to an accident.” The executive director authorized drug testing of the entire team. Holton took the test, certifying that the drug-testing contractor took the proper steps. Holton’s sample tested positive for marijuana twice. The Executive Director removed him. The Merit Systems Protection Board affirmed, finding that the Navy’s failure to provide Holton with advance written notice of why he was being tested, as required by regulation, was harmless because it did not change the outcome. The Federal Circuit affirmed. There was reasonable suspicion that Holton, who briefed the crew, caused or contributed to the accident; the drug test was properly administered and did not violate Holton’s constitutional rights or the regulation's standard. View "Holton v. Department of the Navy" on Justia Law