Bankhead v. Shulkin, docket no. 15-2404 (Mar. 27, 2017)
HELD: Under 38 C.F.R. § 4.130, “the presence of suicidal ideation alone, that is, a veteran’s thoughts of his or her own death or thoughts of engaging in suicide-related behavior, may cause social and occupational impairment with deficiencies in most areas,” thus warranting a 70% disability rating – and does not require “evidence of more than thoughts,” inpatient treatment or hospitalizations, or total social and occupational impairment.
SUMMARY: Mr. Bankhead was service connected for PTSD, rated 50% disabling. His medical records were replete with evidence of suicidal ideation, but he also repeatedly denied having any plan or intent to harm himself. The Board determined that he was not entitled to a 70% rating because even though his medical records showed many of the symptoms associated with that higher rating, “those symptoms did not manifest with sufficient frequency and severity to meet the criteria for a higher evaluation.” The Board based this determination on its findings that he was at “low risk of self-harm,” was treated on an outpatient basis, was not hospitalized or subject to in-patient treatment, was credible in “his assurances that he would refrain from self-harm,” and that he “retained some social and occupational functioning.”
On appeal, the CAVC recognized that 38 C.F.R. § 4.130 “‘requires not only the presence of certain symptoms’ but also that those symptoms have caused the level of occupational and social impairment associated with a particular disability evaluation.” *8 (citing Vazquez-Claudio v. Shinseki, 713 F.3d 112, 117 (Fed. Cir. 2013)). The Court discussed the “longstanding public concern over the prevalence and risk of suicide among veterans” and looked to various sources to define “suicidal ideation.” *9-10. The Court found that “suicidal ideation does not require suicidal intent, a plan, or prepatory behavior” and that “both passive and active suicidal ideation are comprised of thoughts.” *10.
The Court noted that the criteria for a 70% disability rating includes “suicidal ideation” as a symptom that is representative of “social and occupational impairment with deficiencies in most areas” and that “the presence of suicidal ideation alone” may cause such impairment. *10-11. “Suicidal ideation” is only contained in the 70% rating criteria. The Court found that the Board first erred by appearing to require “more than thought or thoughts to establish the symptom of suicidal ideation,” particularly since risk of actual self-harm is “referenced in the criteria for a 100% evaluation.” *11. The Court held that the Board’s failure to differentiate between Mr. Bankhead’s suicidal ideation and his risk of self-harm “resulted in conflation of distinct concepts” and rendered its reasons or bases inadequate. *12.
The second error identified by the Court was the Board’s finding that Mr. Bankhead was not entitled to a 70% rating because he had not been hospitalized or required in-patient treatment. Id. This imposed “a higher standard than the criteria in the DC for mental disorders,” and the Court held that “VA is not at liberty to create evaluation criteria out of thin air in an individual case and then use the absence of those criteria in the veteran’s records to deny a particular mental disorder evaluation.” *12-14.
The third error found by the Court was the Board’s impermissible melding of the 70% and 100% criteria based on its determination that Mr. Bankhead “still retained some social and occupational functioning.” *14. The Court noted that while the 100% rating requires “total occupational and social impairment, a 70% evaluation requires only occupational and social impairment in most areas.” The Court summarized its holding by stating that
VA must engage in a holistic analysis in which it assesses the severity, frequency, and duration of the signs and symptoms of the veteran’s service-connected mental disorder; quantifies the level of occupational and social impairment caused by those signs and symptoms; and assigns an evaluation that most nearly approximates that level of occupational and social impairment. [Citation omitted.] Where, as here, the Board fails to adequately assess evidence of a sign or symptom experienced by the veteran, misrepresents the meaning of a symptom, or fails to consider the impact of the veteran’s symptoms as a whole, its reasons or bases for its denial of a higher evaluation are inadequate.
Unfortunately, despite the ample evidence of record of suicidal ideation to support the 70% disability rating, the Court determined that the appropriate remedy was remand and not reversal to enable the Board to address the evidence of suicidal ideation and consider the potential applicability of staged ratings. *16.