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

Articles Posted in Military Law
by
Larson served on active duty for training in the Navy Reserves in 1988 and on active duty in the Navy, 1989-1993. He gained a substantial amount of weight before, during, and after his active service. In 2009, Larson filed a claim for service connection for multiple conditions, including obesity and dysmetabolic syndrome (DMS). The VA denied the claims in 2010. The Board affirmed that denial in 2016, holding that neither DMS nor obesity was a disability because neither condition is ratable under the VA Schedule of Rating Disabilities. The Veterans Court affirmed the denial of service connection for DMS and obesity, holding that it lacked jurisdiction to review a Board determination of what constitutes a disability under 38 U.S.C. 1110 because such inquiry amounted to a review of the rating schedule, prohibited by 38 U.S.C. 7252(b).The Federal Circuit reversed, noting that it has previously held that the Veterans Court has jurisdiction to review a Board determination that a claimed condition did not constitute a disability for purposes of section 1110. Larson seeks only to establish a service connection for his conditions and is not asking the Veterans Court to invalidate or revise any portion of the rating schedule. View "Larson v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
In 1982, while serving in the Air Force in Germany, Jones was struck in the eye by the door of an armored personnel carrier. He developed intense headaches; it became increasingly difficult for Jones to perform his duties. A 1988 Clinical Resume reflects that Jones had developed “intermittent right cranial nerve 4th palsy associated with chronic right retro-orbital stabbing pain, usually occurring during the late afternoon or night.” Jones described "a nearly constant headache which was relieved only with repetitive doses of intramuscular Demoral.” A Physical Evaluation Board recommended that Jones be discharged with severance pay based on a 10% disability rating for “Post-traumatic pain syndrome manifest[ing] as headaches.”Jones was honorably discharged with severance pay. In 1989, his discharge was amended to reflect that his injury was combat-related. Effective in 2017, the VA awarded Jones a 100% disability rating. Jones petitioned the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records for changes to his record that would entitle him to a disability retirement dating back to 1988, when he was discharged, 10 U.S.C. 1201. The Board denied Jones’s petition. The Federal Circuit affirmed the Claims Court: the claim for disability retirement pay and benefits was a claim under a money-mandating statute, as required by the Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. 1491(a)(1), but jurisdiction was lacking because the claim was barred by the six-year statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. 2501. View "Jones v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Buffington served on active duty in the Air Force, 1992-2000. After leaving active duty service, Buffington sought disability benefits. The VA found that Buffington suffered from service-connected tinnitus, rated his disability at 10 percent, and awarded him disability compensation. In 2003, Buffington was recalled to active duty in the Air National Guard. He informed the VA of his return to active service, and the VA discontinued his disability compensation, 38 U.S.C. 5112(b)(3), 5304(c). In 2004, Buffington completed his active service in July 2005. Buffington did not seek to recommence his disability benefits until January 2009. The VA determined Buffington was entitled to compensation effective on February 1, 2008—one year before he sought recommencement; 38 C.F.R. 3.654(b)(2) sets the effective date for recommencement of compensation, at the earliest, one year before filing. Buffington challenged the effective-date determination.The VA Regional Office rejected his challenge, providing further reasoning for the February 2008 effective date. The Board of Veterans Appeals affirmed. The Veterans Court held that section 3.654(b)(2) was a valid exercise of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs rulemaking authority and was not inconsistent with 38 U.S.C. 5304(c). The Federal Circuit affirmed. Section 3.654(b)(2) reasonably fills a statutory gap. View "Buffington v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
The 2017 Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act (AMA) reforms the VA's administrative appeals system, 131 Stat. 1105, replacing the existing system, which had shepherded all denials of veteran disability claims through a one-size-fits-all appeals process. Under the AMA, claimants may choose between three procedural options: filing a supplemental claim based on additional evidence, requesting higher-level review within the VA based on the same evidentiary record, and filing a notice of disagreement to directly appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals. The VA promulgated regulations to implement the AMA. Veterans’ service organizations, a law firm, and an individual (Petitioners) filed separate petitions raising 13 rulemaking challenges to these regulations under 38 U.S.C. 502.1The Federal Circuit concluded that two veterans’ service organizations had associational standing based on claimed injuries to their members to collectively bring three of their challenges. No Petitioner demonstrated standing to raise any of the remaining challenges. The regulations the organizations have standing to challenge are invalid for contravening the unambiguous meaning of their governing statutory provisions: 38 C.F.R. 14.636(c)(1)(i), limiting when a veteran’s representative may charge fees for work on supplemental claims; 38 C.F.R. 3.2500(b) barring the filing of a supplemental claim when adjudication of that claim is pending before a federal court; and 38 C.F.R. 3.155 excluding supplemental claims from the intent-to-file framework. View "Military-Veterans Advocacy v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

by
Ortiz served during the Vietnam era, a “period of war,” under 38 U.S.C. 1110, which provides for compensation for service-connected disabilities. The VA denied Ortiz’s 1997 claim for disability benefits based on PTSD, finding Ortiz did not provide corroborating evidence, as required by the PTSD regulation. The VA reopened and granted the claim in 2012, pursuant to the 2010 addition of 38 C.F.R. 3.304(f)(3), an exception to the corroborating evidence requirement. The VA rated Ortiz 100 percent disabled and made the benefits effective as of May 2012, when it received the request to reopen. Ortiz contended that the effective date should have been one year earlier; 38 C.F.R. 3.114(a), provides that when compensation “is awarded or increased pursuant to a liberalizing law, or a liberalizing VA issue approved by the Secretary” and the “claim [for compensation] is reviewed at the request of the claimant more than 1 year after the effective date of the law or VA issue,” the effective date is “1 year prior to the date of receipt of such request.”The Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the Veterans Court rejected his request for an earlier effective date. The Federal Circuit reversed. The regulatory change that enabled Ortiz to obtain the benefits was a “liberalizing” one, entitling Ortiz to the earlier effective date, and a larger award. View "Ortiz v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
Tadlock served in the Army, 1982-2003, including service in the Persian Gulf. In 2010, he suffered a pulmonary embolism (PE) that resulted in a heart attack. Tadlock sought presumptive service connection under 38 U.S.C. 1117, which refers to a “qualifying chronic disability” for veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War. The regulations limit the definition of “qualifying chronic disability” to one that, “[b]y history, physical examination, and laboratory tests cannot be attributed to any known clinical diagnosis.” Tadlock underwent a final medical examination by a VA physician, who explained that Tadlock’s PE “is not an undiagnosed illness.” The Board of Veterans Appeals based its denial of service connection on that opinion.Neither the Board nor the examiner made any finding that Tadlock’s condition was not a “medically unexplained chronic multisymptom illness” (MUCMI). Tadlock contended that the statute expressly includes both “an undiagnosed illness” and a MUCMI. The Veterans Court found that Tadlock's PE was "not characterized by overlapping signs and symptoms and unique features ... and disproportional disability when compared with physical findings.” It held that "any error in the Board decision regarding whether his diagnosed illness could count as a MUCMI is harmless.”The Federal Circuit vacated. The Veterans Court exceeded its authority in making a fact-finding in the first instance that Tadlock’s illness did not qualify as a MUCMI because of a lack of overlapping symptoms. The Veterans Court’s jurisdiction to consider prejudicial error does not give it the right to make de novo findings of fact or otherwise resolve matters that are open to debate. View "Tadlock v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
Rudisill served three periods of active duty military service: 2000-2002 in the Army (30 months); 2004-2005 in the Army National Guard (18 months); and 2007-2011 as a commissioned Army officer (45 months). He received 25 months and 14 days of education benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), 38 U.S.C. 3011(a), for completion of his college degree. After his third period of Army service, he applied for education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, 38 U.S.C. 3311, for a graduate program. The VA determined that he was entitled to the Post-9/11 benefits, but only for the remaining 10 months and 16 days of the 36 months authorized for Montgomery benefits. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals agreed.The Veterans Court reversed. A veteran is entitled to education benefits for each of his periods of separately qualifying service and is entitled to the aggregate cap of 48 months of benefits. The Federal Circuit affirmed. The legislation explicitly provides additional benefits to veterans with multiple periods of qualifying service, whereby each period of service qualifies for education benefits: “The aggregate period for which any person may receive assistance under two or more of the provisions of law listed below may not exceed 48 months,” 38 U.S.C. 3695(a). This provision has been in each GI Bill since at least 1968. View "Rudisill v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
Adams, a member of the Arizona Air National Guard, worked in human resources for Customs and Border Patrol (the agency). In 2018, Adams performed three periods of National Guard military service. Between April 11 and July 13, Adams was activated under 10 U.S.C. 12301(d) to support a military personnel appropriation (MPA) tour in support of Twelfth Air Force; July 18-July 30, he was ordered to attend annual training under 32 U.S.C. 502(a). Between July 28 and September 30, Adams was again activated under section 12301(d) to support an MPA tour. Both 12301(d) orders stated that they were “non-contingency” activation orders.Under 5 U.S.C. 5538(a), federal employees who are absent from civilian positions due to certain military responsibilities may qualify to receive the difference between their military pay and what they would have been paid in their civilian employment during the time of their absence (differential pay). Adams requested differential pay for each of his periods of service. Adams appealed the agency's denials. The Merit Systems Protection Board held that the denials did not violate the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U.S.C. 4301–4335). The Federal Circuit affirmed. Entitlement to differential pay requires service under a call to active duty that meets the statutory definition of a contingency operation. None of Adams’s service meets the statutory requirements for differential pay, View "Adams v. Department of Homeland Security" on Justia Law

by
The Department of Defense's experiments at Edgewood involved “volunteers,” including Taylor, who was on active duty, 1969-1971. Taylor signed a secrecy oath providing that he would not divulge any information related to the program and that any such action would render him liable to punishment and signed a document stating that the experiment had been explained to him and that he volunteered to participate. Taylor was exposed to a nerve agent, a tear gas agent, and more. Taylor experienced hallucinations, nausea, jumpiness, irritability, sleepiness, dizziness, impaired coordination, and difficulty concentrating. He was subsequently deployed to Vietnam, for two combat tours. The secrecy of the project prevented Taylor from obtaining psychiatric help and from showing extenuating circumstances during his court-martial.In 2006, the Edgewood names were declassified. The VA notified participants that they were permitted to disclose to health care providers information about their involvement at Edgewood that affected their health. In 2007, Taylor sought service-connected benefits for PTSD. A VA medical examiner diagnosed Taylor with PTSD and major depressive disorder, “a cumulative response” to his Edgewood experience and “subsequent re-traumatization in Vietnam.” Taylor had previously sought treatment for his PTSD but was rejected because the provider believed he lied about being an experimental subject.The VA granted Taylor’s claim, with a 2007 effective date, citing the absence of an earlier claim. On remand, the VA failed to obtain the language of Taylor’s secrecy oath and again concluded that the earliest assignable effective date was 2007; “nothing prevented [Taylor] from filing a claim.” The Veterans Court affirmed.The Federal Circuit reversed. The Veterans Court erred in concluding it lacked equitable authority absent an express statutory grant and erred in concluding that 38 U.S.C. 5110(a)(1) is not subject to common law equitable doctrines. The government affirmatively and intentionally prevented veterans from seeking medical care and applying for disability benefits to which they are otherwise entitled under threat of criminal prosecution and loss of the very benefits sought. “If equitable estoppel is ever to lie against the Government, it is here—to preserve the ‘interest of citizens in some minimum standard of decency, honor, and reliability in their dealings with their Government.’” View "Taylor v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
The “effective date of an award” of disability compensation to a veteran “shall not be earlier than the date” the veteran’s application for such compensation is received by the VA. 38 U.S.C. 5110(a)(1). Section 5110(b)(1) provides an exception that permits an earlier effective date if the VA receives the application within one year of the veteran’s discharge from military service: under such circumstances, the effective date of the award shall date back to “the day following the date of the veteran’s discharge or release.”Arellano filed his application more than 30 years after he was discharged from the Navy, he argued that section 5110(b)(1)’s one-year period should be equitably tolled to afford his award an earlier effective date reaching back to the day after his discharge. The Veterans Court denied Arellano an effective date earlier than the date his disability benefits application was received by the VA. The Federal Circuit previously held that 5110(b)(1) is not a statute of limitations amenable to equitable tolling but merely establishes an effective date for the payment of benefits, thereby categorically foreclosing equitable tolling. The Federal Circuit affirmed as to Arellano, declining to overrule that precedent, stating that the statutory text evinces clear intent to foreclose equitable tolling of section 5110(b)(1)’s one-year period. View "Arellano v. McDonough" on Justia Law