Eicher v. Shulkin, docket no. 15-1896 (Apr. 19, 2017)

HELD: “Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits cannot be used to pay for a nonaccredited program at a foreign educational institution taken by distance learning” and the Court cannot grant benefits on the basis of equitable estoppel. Only the Secretary “has the power to grant equitable relief where administrative error leads to a denial of benefits.”

SUMMARY: Veteran James Eicher applied for VA education benefits to take an online Masters program through a foreign institution. The veteran corresponded with VA and the University via email, requesting an update on the status of his application. In an email, a VA representative stated that the “program was approved” and that a letter with information regarding the approval had been sent. The letter stated that such programs “are approved for in-resident training only” and required in-person attendance “in a formal classroom setting.” The veteran submitted a second electronic application, and received a letter from VA notifying him that he was entitled to “benefits for an approved program of education or training.” The letter instructed him to have his school certify his enrollment before he could get paid.

After VA received the University’s enrollment certification, which showed that the program was taken by distance learning, it denied Mr. Eicher’s request for payment, stating that “distance learning is not approved for GI Bill payment at foreign schools.”

Mr. Eicher appealed to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which denied his request, reiterating that “Post 9/11 GI Bill ‘benefits cannot be used to pay for a nonaccredited program at a foreign educational institution taken via distance learning.” The Board noted that “38 U.S.C. § 503 provides for equitable relief when there has been administrative error,” but stated that Mr. Eicher would need to petition the Secretary for such relief. The Board found that it “lacked jurisdiction to consider the Secretary’s exercise of authority to award equitable relief under section 503.”

On appeal, Mr. Eicher asked the Veterans Court to grant relief on the basis of equitable estoppel, arguing that he relied, to his detriment, on VA communications. Alternatively, he argued that the Board failed to adequately explain its decision because it failed to discuss the regulation pertaining to requesting equitable relief and “whether a recommendation to the Secretary for consideration of equitable relief was warranted.” The Secretary argued that the CAVC cannot apply equitable estoppel to grant monetary awards against the government and that the Board is not required to discuss the issue of recommendation for relief under section 503.

The Court briefly discussed the history of the Post 9/11 GI bill and the statutory definitions of “program of education” and “independent study.” The Court found that the Board correctly determined that Mr. Eicher was not enrolled in an approved course of study since he completed the program online, and that the relevant statutes and regulations “make clear that Post 9/11 GI Bill education benefits cannot be used to pay for a nonaccredited program at a foreign educational institution taken by distance learning.”

With respect to the equitable estoppel argument, the Court held that even if it were inclined to grant such relief, it could only do so with statutory authority, as the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution “precludes the judiciary from ordering an award of public funds to a statutorily ineligible claimant on the basis of equitable estoppel.” The Court added that even if VA’s email to the University was misleading, “erroneous advice given by a government employee cannot be used to estop the government from denying benefits.”

The Court noted that the Secretary does have the authority under 38 U.S.C. § 503 to grant equitable relief, but found that both the Court and the Board lack jurisdiction to review the Secretary’s refusal to grant such relief. In two footnotes, the Court noted its “confusion” as to why the Board member did not mention the Chairman’s authority to recommend equitable relief to the Secretary. However, the Court determined that the Board was not required to discuss the recommendation process – and that its failure to do so did not amount to a remandable reasons-or-bases error.

In his dissent, Judge Greenberg pointed out that the relevant regulation does not mention “distance learning” and that the definition of “independent study” is one that “is offered without any regularly scheduled, conventional classroom or laboratory sessions” – and does not expressly encompass online courses. (“A veteran is not engaged in ‘independent study’ merely because he attends a course online.”)

Judge Greenberg rejected the Board’s characterization of Mr. Eicher’s online course as “independent study” stating that “independent study is only barred if the educational institute is non accredited” and adding that VA’s interpretation of its regulation as barring distant learning “is utterly inconsistent with the statutory context of congressional limitations on independent study.”