Overton: M21-1 definition of "inland waterways" is not binding on the Board

Overton v. Wilkiedocket no. 17-0125 (Sept. 19, 2018)

HELD: The M21-1 provision that excludes all Vietnamese bays and harbors from the definition of “inland waterways,” for purposes of presumptive exposure to herbicides, is not binding on the Board – and while the Board can rely on this M21-1 provision as a factor in its analysis, it “must independently review the matter the M21-1 addresses” and explain its reliance on the provision. 

SUMMARY: Patrick Overton appealed the denial of service connection for diabetes and ischemic heart disease, asserting that he was exposed to herbicides while serving aboard the USS Providencein Da Nang Harbor in 1967. The Board denied the claims based on VA’s Adjudication Procedures Manual(M21-1) that excluded all bays and harbors from the definition of “inland waterways.” *3. 

At the Court, Mr. Overton argued that he is entitled to the presumption of service connection based on herbicide exposure and that the Board failed to analyze the possibility of his exposure. *4. He argued that the Board is required to determine whether it was at least as likely as not that there were levels of herbicides in Da Nang Harbor “sufficient to justify the herbicide exposure presumption, not whether it is probable that he was exposed to herbicides.” *5. The Secretary argued that the Board properly applied the law. 

The Court discussed the legal history surrounding VA’s distinction between “blue water” and “brown water” and its definition of “inland waterways” for purposes of presuming exposure to herbicides. *6-7. The Court summarized this history as follows: (1) VA can “draw reasonable lines demarcating inland versus offshore waterways when considering whether a veteran is entitled to the presumption of herbicide exposure” (Haas v. Peake, 525 F.3d 1168 (Fed. Cir. 2008)); (2) VA must do so “in a reasoned, nonarbitrary manner focused on the likelihood of herbicide exposure” (Gray v. McDonald, 27 Vet.App. 313 (2015)); and (3) “the Board is not bound by M21-1 provisions” (Gray v. Sec’y of Veterans Affairs, 875 F.3d 1102 (Fed. Cir. 2017)). *7. 

Turning to Mr. Overton’s appeal, the Court found that the Board provided no more than a description of the holdings in Haasand Gray“to support its conclusion that Da Nang Harbor is not brown water warranting presumptive herbicide exposure.” *8. The Court found that the Board’s terse reference to the “new guidance” of the M21-1 provision was error because the Board is not bound by the M21-1 – and for it to simply “cite an M21-1 provision without further analysis … would effectively convert the M21-1 into substantive rules as a practical matter without providing a means to challenge such rules under the [Administrative Procedure Act].” *8. The Court added that the Board’s citation to the M21-1 as the sole support for its conclusion – that Da Nang Harbor is blue water – is inconsistent with the statutory requirement that the Board adequately explain its decisions. 

The Court recognized that the M21-1 provision is relevant to issues on appeal – and that the Board cannot ignore this relevant provision. However, the Court held that the Board cannot “simply rely on an M21-1 provision … without first independently reviewing the matter” and explaining “why it finds the M21-1 an accurate guideline for its decision.” The Court rephrased its holding: “[T]he Board is required to discuss any relevant provisions contained in the M21-1 as part of its duty to provide adequate reasons or bases, but because it is not bound by those provisions, it must make its own determination before it chooses to rely on an M21-1 provision as a factor to support its decision.” *8. The Court remanded for the Board to explain its reliance on the M21-1 provision. *9.  

The Court further noted that the purpose of the regulation that established the herbicide presumption was “to compensate veterans based on the probability or likelihood of exposure to herbicides.” On remand, the Court directed the Board to “explain why its determination of entitlement to presumptive service connection is based on a likely herbicide exposure and achieves the purpose behind the regulation.” *9. 

At oral argument, the Secretary urged the Court to defer to his M21-1 interpretation under Auer v. Robins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997). The Court declined to address this argument, as the Secretary did not raise it in his brief, but instead raised it for the first time at oral argument. *9-10. 

The Court also declined the address Mr. Overton’s arguments regarding service connection on a direct basis because that theory might be connected to the issue of presumptive exposure. *11. 

FULL DECISION

Marcelino: Obesity is not a "disease" for VA compensation purposes

Marcelino v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 155 (Jan. 23, 2018)

HELD: Because the Court is statutorily precluded from reviewing VA’s rating schedule, the Court lacks jurisdiction to consider whether obesity should be considered a disability under the rating schedule. 

SUMMARY: Mr. Marcelino was denied service connection for obesity because the Board stated that this condition was not a disability for purposes of service connection and VA compensation. 

The Court first noted that it does not have jurisdiction to review the content of VA’s rating schedule, nor can it review “what should be considered a disability.” There are three exceptions to this general principle – cases involving (1) a constitutional challenge, (2) interpretation of a regulation that relates to the rating schedule, and (3) a procedural challenge to VA’s adoption of schedule regulations. Because “obesity” is not listed in the rating schedule, the Court determined that the question of whether VA should include obesity in the schedule did not fall under one of the exceptions and “would require the Court to undertake the very review of the rating schedule that has been barred from its jurisdiction.”  

ADVOCACY NOTEVA’s Office of the General Counsel issued a Precedent opinion in January 2017 that recognized that while obesity is not a disability for purposes of secondary SC under 38 C.F.R. § 3.310, it can be an “intermediate step” between a service-connected disability and a current disability that may be service connected on a secondary basis. VAOGCPREC 1-2017.

FULL DECISION

Foreman: Amendment to 38 C.F.R. § 3.304(f) is not a liberalizing law for effective date purposes

Foreman v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 155 (Jan. 22, 2018)

HELD: The July 2010 amendment to 38 C.F.R. § 3.304(f) that eased the burden of proof for certain veterans with claims for service connection for PTSD is not a “liberalizing” rule and, therefore, “for purposes of determining the effective date for an award of benefits based on that amendment, 38 C.F.R. § 3.114 does not apply to prevent an effective date earlier than July 2010.”

SUMMARY: In 1972, immediately following his separation from service, Vietnam veteran Frazier Foreman submitted a claim for service connection for “fungus or skin disease” and a back condition. His separation examination report notedtrouble sleeping, depression, and nervous trouble, which the examiner characterized as “nervous condition –mild.” 

In 1973, the RO granted service connection for skin, back, and residuals of a right ring finger fracture. The RO referred to Mr. Foreman’s entrance and separation examinations, but mentioned no other conditions. 

Between 2004 and 2008, Mr. Foreman received treatment at VA for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).In 2008, he filed a claim for service connection for PTSD. In July 2010, while his claim was pending, VA amended 38 C.F.R. § 3.304(f) to ease the evidentiary burden on veterans with claims for service connection based on fear of hostile military or terrorist activity. During a C&P examination, Mr. Foreman reported that he was attached to a graves registration in Vietnam and “was exposed to dismembered bodies multiple times over several months.” He reported his belief that he could have been injured and that he felt “horrified.” The examiner determined that he did not have PTSD because he did not have “fear of hostile military or terrorist activity.” The RO denied Mr. Foreman’s claim because he did not have a PTSD diagnosis – even though the RO noted record evidence of prior treatment for PTSD. 

Mr. Foreman appealed and underwent another C&P examination. This examiner diagnosed PTSD, noting the veteran’s traumatic experiences. The RO granted service connection for PTSD, effective March 2011, the date of the most recent C&P examination. 

Mr. Foreman appealed to the Board, and the Board granted an effective date of July 13, 2010, the date of the “liberalizing” change to 38 C.F.R. § 3.304(f). Mr. Foreman appealed to the Veterans Court, arguing that he is entitled to a 1972 effective date because his submission at that time was an informal claim and the 2010 change to § 3.304(f) was “procedural,” so he was not limited to the July 2010 effective date.  

The Court agreed that the § 3.304(f) amendment was procedural and did not preclude an effective date earlier than July 2010. In general, the effective date for any award of benefits is the date VA receives the claim. 38 C.F.R. § 3.400. For claims granted based on change in law (or a “liberalizing” rule), the effective date cannot be earlier than the effective date of the change in law. 38 C.F.R. §§ 3.400(p), 3.114. 

The Court noted that the Federal Circuit previously held that a “liberalizing law for purposes of determining effective dates is one that brings about a substantive change in the law, creating a new and different entitlement to a benefit.” Spencer v. Brown, 17 F.3d 368, 372-73 (Fed. Cir. 1994). The Court stated that VA itself had “recognized the procedural nature of the amendment when it published the final rule,” and held: “The July 13, 2010, amendment to § 3.304(f) is not a liberalizing rule and …for purposes of determining the effective date for an award of benefits based on that amendment, 38 C.F.R. § 3.114 does not apply to prevent an effective date earlier than July 2010.” 

The Court declined to assign a September 2008 effective date (as requested by VA) –because Mr. Foreman was asking for an effective date earlier than 2008. The Court reversed the portion of the Board’s decision that denied an effective date earlier than July 2010, and remanded for the Board to determine the appropriate effective date.  

FULL DECISION

King: Existence of higher schedular rating is irrelevant to extraschedular analysis

King v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 174 (Dec. 21, 2017)

HELD: “[T]he availability of higher scheduler ratings plays no role in an extraschedular analysis and [] it is inappropriate for the Board to deny extraschedular referral on this basis.” 

SUMMARY: Dudley King is service connected for hearing loss, rated 0%. He appeals for a compensable rating. VA examiners noted “significant effects” on occupation, “poor social interactions,” “hearing difficulty,” “balance problems,” and “dizziness.” One VA examiner summarized the effect of his hearing loss on his life and his work as “difficulty hearing.” 

At a Board hearing, he testified that he could not hear the phone ring; he needed to turn up the volume on the television, which made his wife leave the room; he could not hear bird sounds; and he got angry at having to ask people to repeat themselves. The Board remanded for a new examination, and the subsequent VA examiner stated that his hearing loss did not impact his life or work. The Board denied a compensable rating and extraschedular referral because it found that the rating criteria “reasonably describe” his disability and “provide[] for higher ratings for more severe symptoms.”

He appealed to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The Court framed the issues as (1) whether the rating criteria adequately contemplated the function effects of his hearing loss such that extraschedular referral was not required and (2) whether the availability of a higher schedularrating is relevant to the extraschedular analysis. 

The Court began its analysis by explaining the relevant law regarding schedular and extraschedular ratings. The Court emphasized that “[t]he goal of the entire rating process is to appropriately compensate veterans. The schedular and extraschedular analyses are just different means of doing so.” 

The Court described the “three-part inquiry” in determining whether referral for extraschedular consideration is warranted. The first element of 38 C.F.R. § 3.321(b) –whether the evidence “presents such an exceptional disability picture” that the schedular ratings are inadequate –requires VA to “compare a veteran’s specific symptoms and their severity with those contemplated by the plain language of the rating schedule.” With respect to this element, the Court noted that “impact on employment is not a symptom.”

If the Board determines that the symptoms or their severity are not contemplated by the rating schedule, the second step requires the Board to determine whether the exceptional disability picture exhibits “other related factors,” such as “marked interference with employment or frequent periods of hospitalization.” In this case, the Board determined that extraschedular referral was not warranted because it found the rating criteria reasonably describe Mr. King’s disability and provide for “higher ratings for more severe symptoms.” It was this second rationale that caught the Court’s attention. 

As the Court recently held in Doucette v. Shulkin, 28 Vet.App. 366 (2017), the hearing loss ratings “contemplate the functional effects of decreased hearing and difficulty understanding speech,” but do not “contemplate all functional impairment due to a claimant’s hearing loss.” The Court in Doucette “provided a non-exhaustive list of functional effects” that are outside the rating schedule – such as “pain, dizziness, recurrent loss of balance, or social isolation” – and “acknowledged the existence of effects that would be inherently outside the rating schedule,”

The Court held that ”[t]he availability of higher schedular ratings plays no role in an extraschedular analysis and [ ] it is inappropriate for the Board to deny extraschedular referral on this basis.” The Court explained that the Board’s logic in such a denial “would functionally invalidate § 3.321(b)(1) entirely,” and provided the following example: Assume a disability is rated 30% for symptoms A and B; and 50% for symptoms A, B, X, and Z. What happens to a veteran who’s rated 30% - but has symptoms A, B, and X, but not Z? “Under the Board’s logic, no matter how significantly that veteran’s earning ability were impaired,” VA would be able to deny extraschedular referral just because the rating schedule provided for a higher schedular rating. The Court stated that “[t]his example is precisely the situation § 3.321(b)(1) was created to address.”

The Court further clarified that the holding of King is not limited to hearing loss claims. “Section 3.321 is applicable to all claims.”

FULL DECISION

Crediford: Service department findings (i.e., willful misconduct, LOD determinations) are binding on VA

Crediford v. Shulkin877 F.3d 1040 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 18, 2017)

HELD: The Board cannot “make its own findings on of the facts of line of duty and willful misconduct,” particularly when there are relevant service records before it.   

SUMMARY: Marvin Crediford served in the U.S. Coast Guard from August 1983 to August 1985 and January 1990 to March 1991. In January 1985, he was in a car accident after he had been drinking. Several hours after he had stopped drinking, his blood alcohol level was measured as .12 percent. He was charged with driving under the influence. 

He reported the incident to the Coast Guard, and in April 1985, the local commanding officer issued a report, stating that fatigue and alcohol were responsible for the accident, and that his injuries “were not the result of his own misconduct and were incurred in the line of duty.”

In December 1985, several months after he left the Coast Guard, a memorandum was issued by the Commander of the Thirteenth Coast Guard District. This memorandum referred to a November 1985 “finding” by the Commandant of the Coast Guard that his injuries were “not incurred in the line of duty and were due to his own misconduct.”  

In 2004, Mr. Crediford filed a claim for disability compensation. The RO denied the claim because his injuries were the result of willful misconduct and not incurred in the line of duty. The RO stated that the veteran’s service records did not contain a line-of-duty determination. The RO noted the December 1985 memorandum – but not the April 1985 decision. 

Mr. Crediford appealed and submitted the April 1985 decision. At a Board hearing, he asserted that the December 1985 memorandum was issued “post-discharge, without notice that an LOD investigation was ongoing and was not disclosed.” The Board found the preponderance of the evidence against the claim, noting that his blood alcohol content raised “a presumption” of intoxication that “was not rebutted in this case.” 

The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims affirmed the Board’s decision, finding that the Board provided adequate reasons for bases for its finding that his Mr. Crediford’s injury was the result of willful misconduct. Neither the Board nor the Court resolved the discrepancy between the April and November 1985 findings regarding willful misconduct. 

On appeal to the Federal Circuit, Mr. Crediford argued that the April 1985 LOD decision should prevail because the December 1985 memorandum was not a line-of-duty determination and the November 1985 document referenced in the memorandum was not in the record. Thus, the April 1985 decision was the only LOD determinationof record that was binding on VA. Mr. Crediford also argued that the Board and the Veterans Court “created a new per se standard or presumption of willful misconduct based solely on blood alcohol level, contrary to VA regulation.” 

The Federal Circuit noted that in-service injuries are presumed to be incurred in the line of duty unless they are caused by the veteran’s willful misconduct or substance abuse. Under VA regulations, drinking alcohol, in and of itself, is not willful misconduct unless “a service member consumes alcohol to enjoy its intoxicating effects, and the intoxication ‘proximately and immediately’ results in the injury.” *7 (citing 38 C.F.R. § 3.301(c)(2)). The Court also noted that service department findings – including findings regarding willful misconduct and line of duty – are binding on VA. *7-8 (citing 38 C.F.R. §§ 3.1(m) and (n)). The Court framed the issue on appeal as “whether the Board had authority to ignore the Service Department’s findings.” 

The Court found that neither the Board nor the Court resolved the conflict between the April 1985 decision and the November 1985 document, and held that “the Board erred in simply making its own findings on the question of willful misconduct when there were service department findings before it.” The Court added that the Coast Guard’s “determinations, made in 1985 when the accident occurred, must be addressed” and that “[i]t was error for the Board to make its own findings of the facts of line of duty and willful misconduct.” The Court remanded for further proceedings to address the question of application of 38 C.F.R. § 3.1(m)-(n). 

FULL DECISION

Rossy: Extraschedular consideration for hearing loss not warranted

Rossy v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 142 (Dec. 13, 2017)

HELD: When the only hearing loss problem alleged by a claimant is “difficulty understanding conversations,” referral for extraschedular consideration is not warranted since that complaint is type of symptom and functional effect that is contemplated and compensated by VA’s rating schedule. 

SUMMARY: Jose Rossy served in the U.S. Army from 1949 to 1952. More than 50 years later, he applied for and was granted service connection for bilateral hearing loss, rated 0%. His appeal for a compensable rating was stayed at the Court, pending the outcome of Doucette v. Shulkin, 28 Vet.App. 366 (2017). 

In Doucette, the Court held that the rating criteria for hearing loss contemplate and compensate for “the functional effects of hearing loss, namely difficulty understanding speech and the inability to hear sounds in various contexts.” Doucetteleft open “the possibility that extraschedular consideration for hearing loss might be warranted by other symptoms or functional effects,” but held that “extraschedular referral is not reasonably raised when complaints of difficulty hearing are the only complaints of record.” 

Because Mr. Rossy’s complaints were “within the type of symptoms and functional effects contemplated and compensated by VA’s schedular rating criteria,” the Court affirmed the Board’s denial of referral for extraschedular consideration. 

The Court also concluded that extraschedular referral was not warranted based on the combined effects of Mr. Rossy’s various service-connected conditions because this issue was not reasonably raised by the record or the appellant. 

FULL DECISION

Browder: Fiduciary, allegations of misuse of funds

Browder v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 170 (Dec. 12, 2017)

HELD: Petition to compel Secretary to act is dismissed as moot when Secretary finally acts on veteran's allegations of fiduciary's misuse of his benefits. 

SUMMARY: More than a decade prior to this petition, veteran Joe Browder alleged that his VA-appointed fiduciary had embezzled a portion of his benefits. VA refused to investigate and Mr. Browder attempted to appeal to the Board. When VA took no action on his appeal, Mr. Browder petitioned the Court for a writ of mandamus to compel the Secretary to act. 

The Court formed a panel to consider “whether a decision by the Secretary not to formally investigate a misuse allegation may be appealed to the Board and eventually to the Court.” The Court noted that Congress created a statute defining misuse by a fiduciary, 38 U.S.C. § 6106. Yet, the Secretary never issued regulations addressing misuse or explaining how VA is to respond to veterans’ complaints. Instead, VA has created “policy” to respond to misuse allegations. 

After the panel was formed, the Secretary informed the Court that the fiduciary hub involved in Mr. Browder’s case “had reversed course,” conducted a formal investigation, and issued a report, along with notice of his right to appeal that decision. Because Mr. Browder had now received a decision that he could appeal to the Board, the Court dismissed the petition as moot. 

Understanding Mr. Browder’s frustration with this process and acknowledging the “injustice” of his case, as well as VA’s fiduciary policies in general, the Court stated: 

The Secretary, for more than a decade, refused to formally investigate the petitioner’s misuse allegations or allow him to bring them before the Board and ignored many of his arguments. Then, within months of learning that a precedential decision might upend his fiduciary investigation policies, the Secretary mooted the petition by sending out a formal misuse report that strained, filler and all, to reach two pages. It is hard not to see how the Secretary’s actions could come across as cynical, and they are especially concerning given the “growing consensus outside VA that the fiduciary system is broken.” 

FULL DECISION

Lyles: Rating knee disabilities

Lyles v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 107 (Nov. 29, 2017)

HELD: “[E]valuation of a knee disability under DCs 5257 or 5261 or both does not, as a matter of law, preclude separate evaluation of a meniscal disability of the same knee under DC 5258 or 5259, and vice versa.” Entitlement to a separate rating depends on whether the symptoms have already been compensated under another DC. For musculoskeletal conditions based on limited motion, a symptom has not been compensated if it “did not result in an elevation of the evaluation under 38 C.F.R. §§ 4.40 and 4.45 pursuant to the principles set forth in DeLuca v. Brown, 8 Vet.App. 202 (1995).”

SUMMARY: Thomas Lyles sought an increased rating for residuals of his service-connected left knee disability, which was rated 30% under DC 5257 for instability. After ten years of appeals, he was finally granted an additional 30% rating under DC 5261, based on limited extension. He appealed to the Court, which remanded for the Board to address whether he was entitled to an additional separate rating under DC 5258 (dislocated semilunar cartilage) or 5259 (removed and symptomatic semilunar cartilage). 

The Board obtained a new VA joints examination in which the examiner noted objective evidence of pain, tenderness, and crepitus, but concluded that he could not offer an opinion as to whether pain, weakness, fatigability, etc., resulted in additional functional loss because there was “no objective evidence” to support such loss. The Board denied an additional rating, finding that his additional symptoms were “already ‘encompassed’ by his current evaluations under DCs 5257 and 5261.” The Board determined that Mr. Lyles was not entitled to a higher rating under DeLucabecause there was “no clinical evidence” of further impairment and the VA examiners “‘could not say without resort to mere speculation what such impairment would be.’” The Board concluded that an additional rating would violate the rule against pyramiding, and denied the claim. 

On appeal to the Court, Mr. Lyles argued that the plain language DCs 5257 and 5261 shows that they only cover instability and limited extension, and do not include not all the manifestations of his left knee disability – popping, locking, grinding, pain, and swelling. He acknowledged that VA mayconsider these symptoms under DC 5261, pursuant to DeLuca, but that those manifestations had not been compensated in his case. The Secretary argued that his left knee symptoms had already been considered under DC 5261 and could not be rated again under DC 5258 or 5259. 

The issue before the Court was whether “evaluation of a knee disability under DC 5257 or 5261 preclude, as a matter of law, separate evaluation of a meniscal disability of the same knee under DC 5258 or 5259.” The Court held that it does not. 

DC 5257 covers “recurrent subluxation or lateral instability” and DC 5261 covers limitation of leg extension. See 38 C.F.R. § 4.71a. DC 5258 provides a 20% rating for “cartilage, semilunar, dislocated, with frequent episodes of ‘locking,’ pain, and effusion into the joint.” DC 5259 provides a 10% rating for “cartilage, semilunar, removal of, symptomatic.” Id

The Court found that the plain language of 38 C.F.R. § 4.71a “does not expressly prohibit separate evaluation under DC 5257 or 5261 and a meniscal DC,” Lyles, 29 Vet.App, at 114(citing Esteban v. Brown, 6 Vet.App. 259, 261 (1994) (examining separate ratings under scar DCs) and Yonek v. Shinseki, 722 F.3d 1355, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2013) (regarding separate ratings under musculoskeletal DCs)). The Court noted that VA’s rating schedule “is replete with rules that prohibit separate evaluations of other disabilities,” such as 38 C.F.R. § 4.96 (prohibiting separate ratings of specific respiratory conditions), § 4.113 (regarding rating digestive conditions), § 4.115 (prohibiting separate ratings for heart conditions and nephritis). Id. The Secretary’s demonstrated ability to “craft regulations that expressly forbid” separate ratings strongly suggests that the absence of such language in § 4.71a “must be read as a deliberate decision to permit separate evaluation.” Id. at 115. 

The Court briefly explored the regulatory history of § 4.71a, and held that the language of the regulation, its history, and the surrounding regulations “unambiguously reflect that evaluation of a knee disability under DC 5257 or 5261 does not preclude, as a matter of law, separate evaluation of a meniscal disability of that same knee under DC 5258 or 5259,” and vice versa. 

As to whether Mr. Lyles’ symptoms have already been compensated, the Court found that DC 5257 “compensates veterans only for knee impairment resulting in recurrent subluxation and lateral instability,” and thus reversed the Board’s determination that this DC also compensated him for pain and swelling. 

Because DC 5261 is based on limitation of motion, the Court discussed the relevant regulations pertaining to rating musculoskeletal conditions based on limitation of motion – 38 C.F.R. §§ 4.40, 4.45, and 4.59. These regulations provide for higher ratings where there is evidence of (1) functional loss due to pain and other factors, (2) reduction of normal movement, or (3) an “actually painful, unstable, or malaligned” joint. *13 (citing Mitchell v. Shinseki, 25 Vet.App. 32, 36-37 (2011); DeLuca, 8 Vet.App. 205-07; Southall-Norman v. McDonald, 28 Vet.App. 346, 352 (2016)and Petitti v. McDonald, 27 Vet.App. 415, 425 (2015)). Lyles, 29 Vet.App. at 117-18. 

The Court stated that the purpose of the rating schedule “is to ensure that a claimant is properly compensated, but not overcompensated, for the actual level of impairment.” Id. at 118. Mr. Lyles conceded, and the Court agreed, that each of his additional symptoms couldbe compensated under DC 5261 – by assigning a higher rating pursuant to DeLucaand §§ 4.40, 4.45, and 4.59. The Court found, however, that the Board’s discussion of §§ 4.40 and 4.45 demonstrates that these symptoms have not been compensated in Mr. Lyles’ case. The Court based this determination on the Board’s “failure to address whether swelling, popping, locking, or grinding caused additional functional limitation” that would result in a higher rating under DC 5261 and DeLuca, and the Board’s improper reliance on medical opinions in which the examiners refused to offer the requested opinions regarding additional functional limitation during flare-ups. Lyles, 29 Vet.App. at 419-20 (citing Sharp v. Shulkin, 29 Vet.App. 26, 36 (2017)). 

The Court remanded for the Board to determine whether a separate evaluation is warranted under DC 5258 or 5259. 

Advocacy NoteLylesdemonstrates how VA’s own regulations – 38 C.F.R. §§ 4.40, 4.45, 4.59 – require adjudicators to assess additional functional loss based on limited motion or painful motion. The Court has repeatedly admonished VA for not complying with its own regulations when rating musculoskeletal conditions, and the cases cited in Lyles reflect this history. 

FULL DECISION

Gray: FC cannot review M21-1 revision to "inland waterways" definition

Gray v. Secy of Veterans Affairs, 875 F.3d 1102 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 16, 2017)

HELD: The Federal Circuit lacks jurisdiction to review VA’s policy manual revisions that exclude Navy personnel who served outside the “inland waterways” – including ports, harbors, and open-water bays – because the M21-1 policy manual is merely “guidance to VA adjudicators” and “lacks the force and effect of law.”

SUMMARY: Robert Gray is a Blue Water Navy veteran who challenged VA’s exclusion of Da Nang Harbor from its definition of “inland waterways” for purposes of presumptive service connection for conditions related to herbicide (Agent Orange) exposure. The Veterans Court concluded that VA’s definition was “both inconsistent with the regulatory purpose and irrational,” and remanded for VA to “reevaluate its definition of ‘inland waterway’ to be consistent with [38 C.F.R.] § 3.307(a)(6)(iii),” the regulation governing the presumption of herbicide exposure.  

Instead of amending the regulation – which would have required notice-and-comment rulemaking – VA amended its M21-1 policy manual with language that continued “to exclude all Navy personnel who served … in [Vietnam’s] ports, harbors, and open waters [] from presumptive service connection for diseases or illnesses connected with exposure to Agent Orange.”

Mr. Gray challenged the amendment to VA’s policy under 38 U.S.C. § 502, which governs judicial review of rules and regulations. This statute limits the Federal Circuit’s jurisdiction to agency actions that are subject to two provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act – 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(1) and § 553. The question in this appeal is whether the revision to the M21-1 falls under § 552(a)(1). The Federal Circuit held that it did not.

This provision covers agency actions that are published in the Federal Register and are “substantive rules of general applicability as authorized by law, and statements of general policy or interpretations of general applicability formulated and adopted by the agency.” In other words – notice-and-comment rulemaking. The Federal Circuit stated that there are three factors to consider in assessing “whether an agency action constitutes substantive rulemaking … (1) the [a]gency’s own characteristics of the action; (2) whether the action was published in the Federal Register or the Code of Federal Regulations; and (3) whether the action has binding effects on private parties or on the agency.” (quoting Disabled Am. Veterans v. Sec’y of Veterans Affairs, 859 F.3d 1072, 1077 (Fed. Cir. 2017).  

The Court found that the M21-1 is meant to guide VA adjudicators, but “is not intended to establish substantive rules.” The Court noted that the Board is not bound by the M21-1 – and thus “where the action is not binding on private parties or the agency itself, we have no jurisdiction to review it.”

The Court found that Mr. Gray – and his fellow Blue Water Navy Veterans – still had other options to pursue. First, if they are “adversely affected by a M21-1” provision, they can challenge that provision on direct appeal. Second, they can petition VA for rulemaking. (Mr. Gray pointed out that both options were currently pending.) The Court recognized that it would likely take years for “individual adjudications or petitions for rulemaking” to run their course. Unfortunately, the sad reality of this situation does not change the Federal Circuit’s jurisdiction.

In a partial dissent, Judge Dyk argued that DAV was wrongly decided and that it unnecessarily narrows the Court’s jurisdiction. In Judge Dyk’s view, the “relevant question for jurisdictional purposes … is whether the Manual revisions here are properly characterized as ‘statements of general policy or interpretations of general applicability.” If so, the Federal Circuit would have jurisdiction to review the challenge. The problem with DAV (and, now, the majority opinion in this case), is that it essentially enables VA to evade judicial review by simply not publishing the revision in the Federal Register.

FULL DECISION

Sucic: TO SUBSTITUTE, AN ELIGIBLE CHILD MUST MEET VA’S DEFINITION OF “CHILD” AT THE TIME OF THE VETERAN’S DEATH

Sucic v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 121 (per curiam order) (Oct. 26, 2017)

HELD: A child of a deceased veteran is eligible for substitution only if he/she meets VA’s definition of “child” at the time of the veteran’s death – not just during the pendency of the veteran’s claim. 

SUMMARY: The veteran was granted service connection for PTSD in 2007, effective 2003. He appealed for an earlier the effective date all the way up to the Federal Circuit. In February 2016, the Federal Circuit reversed the Veterans Court’s decision and remanded the matter for the Court to consider a 1992 effective date. In May 2016, the CAVC remanded the issue to the Board. 

In August 2016, the veteran’s attorney notified the Court that the veteran had died in April 2016 and requested substitution of his three adult children. The attorney acknowledged that the “children” were now adults – but argued that the Court should allow them to be substituted because this appeal involves the effective date of PTSD for the period from 1992 to 2003, and the veteran’s children were minors for all or part of this time period. 

The Court disagreed – and held that in order to be substituted “an individual must satisfy the requirements of the statutory framework for these benefits when the veteran dies as opposed to at some point during the pendency of the veteran’s claim.” VA defines an eligible “child” as one who is unmarried and under 18 or “became permanently incapable of self-support” prior to age 18 or who is under age 23 and a full-time student. 38 U.S.C. § 101(4)(A). The Court held: “A child of a deceased veteran is therefore eligible for substitution only if he or she satisfies the definition of 38 U.S.C. § 101(4)(A) ‘upon the death’ of the veteran.” Because none of the adult children met VA’s definition of eligible “child” at the time of the veteran’s death, the Court denied the motion to substitute. 

FULL DECISION

Urban: RATING CO-EXISTING RESPIRATORY CONDITIONS, 38 C.F.R. § 4.96

Urban v. Shulkin, 29 Vet.App. 82 (Sept. 18, 2017)

HELD: When assigning a single disability rating for co-existing respiratory conditions, 38 C.F.R. § 4.96(a) allows VA to (1) determine which disability is predominant and then (2) evaluate the overall severity of the multiple conditions under the diagnostic criteria for the predominant disability. The fact that the non-predominant disability may cause symptoms that are not listed in the diagnostic criteria for the predominant disability does not automatically warrant a higher rating. 

SUMMARY: Mr. Urban is service connected for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and asthma, evaluated as 60% disabling under the Diagnostic Code (DC) for asthma since that DC results in a higher rating than the DC for OSA. He appealed for a higher rating, arguing that although he was entitled to a 60% rating under the DC for asthma, he should be rated 100% because his OSA required the use of a CPAP machine and caused him to be tired during the day – two factors that are not part of the 60% rating. 

The Board denied the higher rating based on 38 C.F.R. § 4.96(a), which precludes separate evaluations for certain listed respiratory conditions, including asthma and OSA. 

On appeal to the Veterans Court, Mr. Urban argued that the specific criteria for the higher evaluation listed in the predominant disability’s DC need not be met – and that symptoms in the non-predominant disability can warrant a higher rating. The Secretary argued that a higher rating is warranted only when the criteria listed in the DC for the predominant disability are met. Mr. Urban also argued that the Board erred when it denied referral for extraschedular consideration under 38 C.F.R. § 3.321 “because the availability of a higher scheduler evaluation does not prevent extraschedular referral.” The Secretary conceded that the Board may have erred in suggesting that referral was not warranted because of the availability of a higher rating, but argued that the error was harmless because the Board’s overall extraschedular assessment was adequate. 

The Court agreed with the Secretary. Under § 4.96(a), certain listed respiratory conditions cannot be combined, and are instead rated under the DC “which reflects the predominant disability with elevation to the next higher evaluation where the severity of the overall disability warrants such elevation.” The Court noted that the language at issue in this appeal is the meaning of “where the severity of the overall disability warrants such elevation.” The Secretary argued that after determining which disability is predominant, VA then must apply the DC for that disability, “considering all of the signs and symptoms attributable to either one or both of those disabilities.” Mr. Urban agreed that the phrase requires VA to look at the symptoms of both disabilities and evaluated them under DC 6602, but argued that “his symptoms need not match the criteria for a higher evaluation listed in DC 6602 to obtain a higher evaluation under § 4.96(a) and that OSA symptoms not listed in DC 6602 may nevertheless form the basis of a higher evaluation under that DC.” 

The Court found that the language in § 4.96(a) was ambiguous and thus deferred to the Secretary’s “reasonable” interpretation of the phrase “with elevation to the next higher evaluation” to refer to the “next higher evaluation level of the predominant disability DC.” To attain the higher rating, “the criteria listed in that evaluation level are key to assessing the severity of the overall disability from both respiratory conditions.” The Court found that this interpretation allows VA “to assess the overall symptoms of the coexisting respiratory conditions against the criteria listed in the predominant disability’s DC.” The Court found the interpretation to be consistent with the plain language of the regulation, as well as with its purpose within VA’s regulatory scheme (“to avoid duplicate compensation payments for the same symptoms,” i.e., “pyramiding”). 

FULL DECISION

Goodman: 38 C.F.R. § 3.317; MEDICALLY UNEXPLAINED MULTI-SYMPTOM ILLNESS

Goodman v. Shulkin, 870 F.3d 1383 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 18, 2017)

HELD: VA adjudicators may rely on a medical examiner’s opinion as to whether a condition is a medically unexplained multi-symptom illness (MUCMI). However, these decisions are not precedential and do not prevent other veterans from establishing entitlement to service connection for the same condition as a MUCMI under 38 C.F.R. § 3.317. 

SUMMARY: Prezell Goodman served in the U.S. Army from 1972 to 1992, including service in Southwest Asia during the Persian Gulf War. His service medical records were negative for rheumatoid arthritis and he did not report joint pain at separation. In 2007, he was treated for hand stiffness and knee pain, which he said began in service. Shortly after this treatment, he filed a claim for service connection for rheumatoid arthritis. The RO and the Board denied the claim. 

He appealed to the Veterans Court, and the parties entered into a Joint Motion to Remand the appeal for the Board to consider whether Mr. Goodman was entitled to presumptive service connection for rheumatoid arthritis as a MUCMI under 38 C.F.R. § 3.317. The parties agreed that the question of whether Mr. Goodman’s rheumatoid arthritis was a MUCMI is a medical determination. 

The Board obtained a medical opinion by a VA hospital’s Director of Rheumatology, who concluded that it was less likely that Mr. Goodman’s rheumatoid arthritis was a MUCMI under § 3.317 because “it has at least partially explained and widely accepted concepts in regards to etiology and pathogenesis that are well documented and established in the literature.” The examiner added that it was less likely that his rheumatoid arthritis was related to any in-service exposure event because he had no symptoms in service and it was diagnosed 15 years after his discharge. The Board relied on this opinion to deny the claim. 

Mr. Goodman appealed again to the Veterans Court, asserting that the Board erred in relying on the medical opinion because it did not “pinpoint a specific etiology or pathophysiology” for his arthritis. The Court found that the Board did not err in its interpretation of § 3.317 and found that the regulation allows “medical experts to identify which diseases . . . have at least a partially explained etiology and pathophysiology.” 

On appeal to the Federal Circuit, Mr. Goodman argued that the Veterans Court misinterpreted § 3.317 by “improperly delegate[ing] the authority for determining a qualifying disease to an individual physician.” He asserted that “a medical expert in an individual case cannot establish a general or precedential rule precluding rheumatoid arthritis from qualifying as a MUCMI.” 

The Federal Circuit rejected this argument. The Court first noted that 38 U.S.C. § 1117 provides Persian Gulf War veterans with presumptive service connection for a “qualifying chronic disability” that “cannot be attributed to any known clinical diagnosis.” The statute defines “qualifying chronic disability” as one that results from “[a]n undiagnosed illness” or “[a MUCMI] . . . that is defined by a cluster of signs or symptoms.” 38 U.S.C. § 1117(a)(2). The implementing regulation, § 3.317, contains a similar definition of “qualifying chronic disability”: “[T]he term [MUCMI] means a diagnosed illness without conclusive pathophysiology or etiology, that Is characterized by overlapping symptoms and signs . . . . Chronic multisymptom illnesses of partially understood etiology and pathophysiology, such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis, will not be considered medically unexplained.” 38 C.F.R. § 3.317(a)(2)(ii). 

The Court found that the regulation did not expressly “prohibit medical professionals from professing whether certain medical diseases may constitute a MUCMI.” However, because neither the statute nor the regulation “state who has the power to diagnose illnesses that may qualify as a MUCMI,” the Court considered the relevant statutory and regulatory history. In October 2010, VA published guidelines on the regulation to allow medical professionals to provide opinions that adjudicators could use in making MUCMI determinations on a case-by-case basis. The Court noted that this gave VA adjudicators the same authority in MUCMI determinations that they have in other disability claim determinations. See 38 C.F.R. § 4.2 (“It is the responsibility of the rating specialist to interpret reports of examination in the light of the whole recorded history…”). The Court thus held that “VA adjudicators may rely on a medical examiner’s evaluation of whether a veteran’s condition qualifies as a MUCMI pursuant to § 3.317(a)(2)(ii).” 

With respect to Mr. Goodman’s argument that a medical examiner in a particular case cannot establish precedent regarding whether a condition is a MUCMI, the Court noted that Board decisions are not precedential (38 C.F.R. § 20.1303), and the medical opinion in this case only applies to Mr. Goodman’s rheumatoid arthritis. The Court held that “in individual MUCMI determinations, the VA adjudicator may consider evidence of medical expert opinions and all other facts of record to make the final determination of whether a claimant has proven, based on the claimant’s unique symptoms, the existence of a MUCMI.” The Court further held that there is nothing in the regulation that “precludes a previously-denied, or future, rheumatoid arthritis claimant from seeking the presumptive service connection afforded pursuant to § 3.317.”  

FULL DECISION

Kisor: 38 C.F.R. § 3.156(c), EARLIER EFFECTIVE DATE

Kisor v. Shulkin, 869 F.3d 1360 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 7, 2017)

HELD: When newly received service records do not “remedy the defects” of a prior claim, those records are not “‘relevant’ for purposes of § 3.156(c)” and thus will not warrant an earlier effective date.

SUMMARY: Mr. Kisor was a Vietnam combat veteran. In 1982, he filed a claim for service connection for PTSD. His Vet Center therapist submitted a letter with a diagnosis of PTSD. However, a 1983 VA (C&P) psychiatrist diagnosed a personality disorder. The RO denied the claim due to the lack of a PTSD diagnosis. Mr. Kisor did not appeal this decision and it became final.

In 2006, he filed a request to reopen his previously denied claim. He subsequently submitted a psychiatric evaluation showing a diagnosis of PTSD. He also submitted service records showing his combat history. The RO obtained an opinion from a VA examiner who confirmed the diagnosis of PTSD. The RO then made a Formal Finding of Information Required to Document the Claimed Stressor and verified his combat service. The RO granted service connection for PTSD, rated 50%, effective June 5, 2006, the date it received his request to reopen. The grant was based on the PTSD diagnosis and the Formal Finding of Information.

Mr. Kisor appealed for a higher rating and an earlier effective date. The RO granted a higher rating, but denied an earlier effective date.

Mr. Kisor appealed to the Board, arguing that there was clear and unmistakable error (CUE) in the 1983 RO decision. The Board rejected his arguments, but identified an alternative argument for an earlier effective date – via 38 C.F.R. § 3.156(c), which requires the VA to reconsider a veteran’s claim when relevant service department records are newly associated with the veteran’s claims file, whether or not they are ‘new and material’ under § 3.156(a).” (quoting Blubaugh v. McDonald, 773 F.3d 1310, 1313 (Fed. Cir. 2014)). The Board considered whether the new evidence warranted reconsideration of his claim such that he would be entitled to a 1982 effective date. The Board determined that the new records were not “relevant” for purposes of § 3.156(c) because the 1983 decision denied service connection due to a lack of a PTSD diagnosis – and there was no dispute as to his combat status or in-service stressor.  

Mr. Kisor appealed to the CAVC, arguing that the Board failed to apply § 3.156(c). The Court rejected this argument, noting that the newly submitted service records did not contain a diagnosis of PTSD – and that the lack of such diagnosis was the basis for the 1983 denial. The Court found no error in the Board’s application of § 3.156(c).

Mr. Kisor appealed to the Federal Circuit, arguing that the Veterans Court misinterpreted § 3.156(c)(1). He argued for a broad interpretation of the word “relevant” based on the Federal Rules of Evidence, which would find a service record “relevant” if it has “any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.”

The Secretary argued for a narrower interpretation of “relevant” that “depends upon the particular claim and the other evidence of record.” The Secretary stated that Mr. Kisor’s newly submitted service records only relate to the existence of an in-service stressor – not to a diagnosis of PTSD – and that the “issue of an in-service stressor was never disputed in the 1983 claim.” The Secretary stated that neither the Board nor the Veterans Court “required that the evidence relate to the basis for the prior denial in all cases.” However, in Mr. Kisor’s case, the evidence relating to the in-service stressor “could not be relevant without a medical diagnosis for PTSD at the time of the previous claim.”

The Federal Circuit first determined that the term “relevant” in 38 C.F.R. § 3.156(c)(1) was ambiguous, and found that the Board’s interpretation was not “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with VA’s regulatory framework.” The Court found that the newly submitted service records were “superfluous” and determined that since they “did not remedy the defect of his 1982 claim and contained facts that were never in question,” there was no error in the Board’s conclusion that they were not “relevant” for purposes of § 3.156(c)(1).

In response to Mr. Kisor’s argument that the Veterans Court construed § 3.156(c)(1) too narrowly, the Federal Circuit held that their interpretation did not require “that relevant records must relate to the basis of a prior denial,” but rather that “on the facts and record of this case, Mr. Kisor’s later-submitted materials were not relevant to [the] determination of his claim.” The Court thus affirmed the CAVC’s decision.

FULL DECISION

Sharp: VA IS NOT REQUIRED TO OBTAIN AN EXAM DURING A “FLARE-UP” IN ALL CASES, BUT EXAMINERS MUST ESTIMATE FUNCTIONAL LOSS DURING A FLARE BASED ON OTHER EVIDENCE, INCLUDING LAY STATEMENTS

Sharp v. Shulkin, 29 Vet.App. 26 (Sept. 6, 2017)

HELD: Whether VA is obligated to obtain an examination during a flare-up period depends on the nature of the disability and the frequency and duration of the flare. The Board cannot rely on an examiner’s broad statement that an opinion as to the extent of functional loss during a flare-up is not possible “without resort to speculation” because there is “no conceptual or empirical basis for making such a determination” without first determining that this statement “is predicated on a lack of knowledge among the ‘medical community at large’ and not the insufficient knowledge of the specific examiner.” Lay statements can provide “an adequate basis on which to formulate an opinion regarding additional functional loss during flares.”

SUMMARY: Mr. Sharp was service connected for arthritis of both shoulders, rated 10% each, and both hands and forearms, rated 0%. He appealed for higher ratings. The Board remanded for an examination that included range-of-motion (ROM) testing, and asked the examiner to explain the extent to which the veteran has “functional loss due to pain” or any other symptoms “during flare-ups and/or with repeated use.”

In September 2015, a VA examiner noted “the veteran’s reports of experiencing periodic flares,” but indicated that he was not experiencing a flare-up during the examination. The examiner stated that the veteran reported “additional functional loss during flare periods in terms of increased pain and lack of endurance,” but concluded that “it was not possible without mere speculation” to estimate the loss of ROM or functional loss during flares “because there is no conceptual or empirical basis for making such a determination without directly observing function under these circumstances.”

The RO granted 10% ratings for Mr. Sharp’s forearm and hand conditions, but denied higher ratings.

The Board affirmed the RO’s decision, finding that “VA substantially complied” with its remand, and that the examiner provided an adequate explanation for not providing an opinion regarding functional loss during a flare-up.

On appeal to the Court, Mr. Sharp argued that the Board clearly erred in accepting the VA medical opinion as adequate because the examiner failed to estimate the additional functional loss during a flare, as required by law and by the Board’s remand. The Secretary argued that this Court’s case law allowed the examiner to “decline to offer an opinion on the grounds that doing so would require resort to speculation.”

The Court summarized the current law surrounding the requirements for evaluating musculoskeletal disabilities, and stated that, according to the VA Clinician’s Guide, “examiners are instructed to inquire whether there are periods of flare,” and, if so, “state their severity, frequency, and duration; name the precipitating and alleviating factors; and estimate, ‘per [the] veteran,’ to what extent, if any, they affect functional impairment.” The obligation to obtain an examination during a flare-up period depends on the nature of the disability in the particular case. For example, if a veteran reports flare-ups that last weeks, it may be possible to schedule an examination during a flare, whereas it is impractical to require an examination during a flare that generally only lasts a few hours or a day. “Thus, the frequency, duration, and severity of flares are necessary considerations when determining whether VA must attempt to schedule an examination during a flare.” (citing Ardison v. Brown, 6 Vet.App. 405, 408 (1994) and Voerth v. West, 13 Vet.App. 117, 122 (1999)).

The Court further explained its holding in Jones v. Shinseki, 23 Vet.App. 382 (2010), as allowing “the Board to accept a VA examiner’s statement that he or she cannot offer an opinion without resorting to speculation, but only after determining that this is not based on the absence of procurable information or on a particular examiner’s shortcomings or general aversion to offering an opinion on issues not directly observed.”

In this case, the Court found that there was no evidence of record regarding the frequency or duration of Mr. Sharp’s flare-ups other than the notes in the examiner’s report. Because of this, the Court determined that the Board did not err in finding the examination inadequate solely because it was not conducted during a flare.

However, the Court determined that even though VA is not required to obtain an examination during a flare-up, VA examiners are required to “estimate the functional loss that would occur during flares.” (citing DeLuca v. Brown, 8 Vet.App. 202, 204 (1995); Mitchell v. Shinseki, 25 Vet.App. 32. 44 (2011); and Petitti v. McDonald, 27 Vet.App. 415, 429-30 (2015) (holding that “credible lay evidence of functional loss due to pain, including during flare periods, observed outside of the VA examination context could constitute objective evidence in support of an evaluation”)). The Court determined that the examination in this case was inadequate because the examiner “did not elicit relevant information as to the veteran’s flares or ask him to describe the additional functional loss, if any, he suffered during flares and then estimate the veteran’s functional lost due to flares based on all the evidence of record—including the veteran’s lay information—or explain why she could not do so.”

The Court held that its “case law and VA guidelines anticipate that examiners will offer flare opinions based on estimates derived from information procured from relevant sources, including the lay statements of veterans.” The Court rejected the examiner’s broad statement regarding “no conceptual or empirical basis” for assessing functional loss during a flare because it is “contradicted by the VA Clinician’s Guide, which specifically advises examiners to try to procure information necessary to render an opinion regarding flares from veterans.”

The Court further reiterated its holding in Jones, stating that “before the Board can accept an examiner’s statement that an opinion cannot be provided without resort to speculation, it must be clear that this is predicated on a lack of knowledge among the ‘medical community at large’ and not the insufficient knowledge of the specific examiner.”

Finally, the Court rejected the notion that lay statements “can never provide an adequate basis on which to formulate an opinion regarding additional functional loss during flares” as “inconsistent with this Court’s case law and VA’s own practice as set forth in VA’s Clinician’s Guide.”  

FULL DECISION

Gazelle: SPECIAL MONTHLY COMPENSATION; COMBINED RATINGS

Gazelle v. Shulkin, 868 F.3d 1006 (Fed. Cir., Aug. 22, 2017)

HELD: The Federal Circuit affirmed the CAVC’s decision in Gazelle v. McDonald, 27 Vet.App. 461 (2016), and held that 38 U.S.C. § 1114(s)(1) “is clear and unambiguous in its direction to calculate special monthly compensation using the combined ratings table.

SUMMARY: Mr. Gazelle was service connected for PTSD, rated 100%, and or multiple disabilities that combined to a 50% disability rating under VA’s combined ratings table, 38 C.F.R. § 4.25. If his disability ratings for these conditions were added, as opposed to combined, the disability rating for his physical conditions would equal 60%.

Under 38 U.S.C. § 1114(s)(1), a veteran is entitled to a higher rate of compensation – special monthly compensation (SMC) – if s/he has “a service-connected disability rated as total” and “additional service-connected disability or disabilities independently ratable at [sixty] percent or more.” Because Mr. Gazelle’s additional disabilities did not combine to a 60% rating, the Board denied SMC.

The Veterans Court affirmed the Board’s denial, holding that “consistent with the plain meaning of subsection 1114(s), the Board appropriately applied the combined ratings table to determine eligibility for SMC benefits.”

Mr. Gazelle appealed to the Federal Circuit, challenging the CAVC’s interpretation of 38 U.S.C. § 1114(s). The Federal Circuit examined the language of the statute, the legislative history, and the placement of this provision in the statutory scheme, and affirmed the CAVC’s decision, holding that “§ 1114(s)(1) unambiguously requires the veteran’s additional disabilities be rated at least at sixty percent based upon the combined ratings table and not the addition of individual disability ratings.” (emphasis in original).

FULL DECISION

Garcia: CLAIMANT MUST RAISE ALL CUE ARGUMENTS RELATED TO CLAIM DECIDED BY BOARD IN THE INITIAL CUE MOTION

Garcia v. Shulkin, 29 Vet.App. 47 (Aug. 9, 2017)

HELD: A claimant must raise all possible errors on a claim in a final Board decision when filing the initial motion for revision on the basis of clear and unmistakable error (CUE) – and this rule applies even when the Court remands that initial CUE challenge. Where the Board has determined that there was no CUE in a prior claim, the Court lacks jurisdiction to remand for the Board to consider any new CUE allegations.

SUMMARY: Veteran Teofilo Garcia was denied service connection for a psychiatric condition in 2003. He appealed to the Board and, after a remand for additional development including a new medical opinion, the Board denied his claim in 2006. He appealed that decision to the Court, through his current counsel, but withdrew the appeal in 2007.

In July 2008, Mr. Garcia, through the same attorney, filed a motion to revise the Board’s 2006 decision on the basis of CUE, arguing that revision was required because (1) the Board did not afford sufficient weight to the favorable medical evidence of record; (2) he was entitled to “a greater duty to assist” since his service records had been destroyed; and (3) the Board should have given him the benefit of the doubt.

The Board denied the motion in April 2010. In July 2010, Mr. Garcia requested reconsideration of that decision, asserting that the Board failed to consider Mr. Garcia’s wife’s hearing testimony. In August 2010, the Board denied the motion to reconsider, finding that its 2006 decision specifically considered Mrs. Garcia’s testimony.

Mr. Garcia appealed to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. In December 2011, the Court affirmed the Board’s determination that there was no CUE in the 2006 decision based on the three arguments he had raised. However, the Court also determined that the Board was required to address Mr. Garcia’s fourth allegation of CUE regarding his wife’s hearing testimony, and remanded for the Board to provide an adequate explanation for its determination that it had properly considered the hearing testimony in its 2006 decision.

The Court also noted Mr. Garcia’s arguments regarding what appeared to be “inappropriate influence” exerted on the VA examiner by the rating specialist, but found that Mr. Garcia had not asserted that this was a due process violation.

Shortly after the Court’s decision, Mr. Garcia died, and his wife was substituted in his appeal. In October 2012, the Board addressed the issues in the Court’s remand and continued to deny the appeal. Mrs. Garcia filed a motion to vacate and reconsider, raising the constitutional due process argument to the Board for the first time. The Board denied the motion and Mrs. Garcia appealed to the Court.

In October 2014, the Court again remanded the issue of CUE regarding the Board’s consideration of Mrs. Garcia’s hearing testimony. The Court also dismissed the constitutional due process allegation because it had not been presented to the Board in the initial CUE motion and the Court thus lacked jurisdiction to consider it.

In May 2015, the Board again determined that there was no CUE in the 2006 decision. Mrs. Garcia again appealed to the Court.

In the present decision, the Court reiterated that “an appellant has only one opportunity to raise allegations of CUE for each claim decided in a Board decision, and any subsequent attempt to raise a CUE challenge to the same claim contained in a Board decision must be dismissed with prejudice,” citing Hillyard v. Shinseki, 24 Vet.App. 343 (2011). The issue in the present appeal was “whether a new CUE challenge may be raised where the Court remands the initial CUE challenge.” The Court held that Hillyard applied to this situation, stating that the “rule established in Hillyard rightly requires that all possible errors in a final Board decision be raised at the time a motion for revision of that Board decision based on CUE is filed.”

The Court concluded that in 2011 and 2014 it had “improperly entertained the fourth allegation of CUE regarding Mrs. Garcia’s testimony,” and that it should have dismissed the appeal of the Board’s decision on that fourth allegation. Because it had no jurisdiction to address this issue, the Court dismissed this portion of the appeal.

Similarly, the Court recognized that it lacked jurisdiction over the due process allegation, since it was not raised in Mr. Garcia’s initial CUE motion. The Court rejected the argument that “due process violations are special and may be raised at any time, regardless of the finality of the underlying decision,” citing Cook v. Principi, 318 F.3d 1334, 1339 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (en banc), for the proposition that there are only two exceptions to finality. The Court acknowledged a footnote in Cook that appeared to be on point with the present issue, and adopted its reasoning in holding that “even an allegation of a due process violation may not vitiate the finality of a decision.” The Court thus dismissed the due process allegation.

FULL DECISION

Manzanares: INCREASED-RATING CLAIM DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY INCLUDE SECONDARY CONDITION(S) FOR EFFECTIVE DATE PURPOSES

Manzanares v. Shulkin, 863 F.3d 1374 (Fed. Cir. July 19, 2017)

HELD: A claim for an increased rating for a service-connected condition does not automatically include a claim for service connection for a secondary condition related to that original condition. The effective date for the grant of service connection for the secondary condition is the date VA receives the claim for that condition.

SUMMARY: Veteran Martha Manzanares was service connected for stress fractures of both ankles, rated 0%. In February 2006, she submitted a request for an increased rating and was granted 10% for each ankle, effective the date of her request. In April 2007, she filed a timely Notice of Disagreement, as well as a claim for service connection for a back condition, secondary to her ankles.

The RO granted service connection for the back, effective April 2007, the date of her claim. She appealed to the Board, arguing that the effective date should be February 2006, pursuant to 38 C.F.R. § 3.156(b), which states that “[n]ew and material evidence received prior to the expiration of the appeal period . . . will be considered as having been filed in connection with the claim that was pending at the beginning of the appeal period.” The Board denied the earlier effective date, stating that the effective date for service connection is the later of the date VA received the claim or the date entitlement arose. Because she filed her claim for secondary service connection for her back in April 2007, that is the correct effective date for the grant of benefits.

The CAVC affirmed the Board’s decision, finding no error in the Board’s determination that the secondary service-connection claim for her back condition was not part of the increased-rating claim for the ankles and was not filed until April 2007. The Federal Circuit agreed.

Ms. Manzanares argued that she was entitled to a February 2006 effective date based on two regulations – 38 C.F.R. § 3.156(b) (regarding new and material evidence, quoted above) and § 3.310(a), which states that “[w]hen service connection is . . . established for a secondary condition, the secondary condition shall be considered a part of the original condition.”

The Federal Circuit found that these arguments were an attempt to avoid its prior holding in Ellington v. Peake, 541 F.3d 11364, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2008), which determined “that § 3.310(a) does not mean that primary and secondary conditions receive the same effective date.” In that case, the Court stated that it would be illogical to require the same effective date for primary and secondary conditions – since “secondary conditions may not arise until years after the original condition.” Ellington, 541 F.3d at 1369. Ellington essentially held that “secondary service connection is not part of a primary claim for service connection” – and the Court found that this holding applied to the present case, emphasizing that § 3.310(a) “speaks in terms of conditions, not claims.” (emphasis in original).

The Court added that there was nothing in the regulatory history of 38 C.F.R. § 3.310(a) that “suggests that secondary service connection is part of a claim for primary service connection or one for increased rating for a primary condition.” The Court thus held that “§ 3.310(a) does not make a claim for secondary service connection part of the primary service connection claim.” 

FULL DECISION

Johnson: RATING SKIN CONDITIONS, TOPICAL V. SYSTEMIC THERAPY

Johnson v. Shulkin, 862 F.3d 1351 (Fed. Cir. July 14, 2017)

HELD: When rating skin conditions, “the use of topical corticosteroids does not automatically mean systemic therapy because DC 7806 distinguishes between systemic and topical therapy.” 862 F.3d at 1335 (emphasis in original).

SUMMARY: Under 38 C.F.R. § 4.118, Diagnostic Code (DC) 7806, a skin condition is rated based on the percentage of the body or exposed area affected by the condition or the frequency and type of therapeutic treatment (topical or systemic).

Veteran Paul Johnson was rated 10% for his service-connected skin condition and appealed for a higher rating. He treated this condition with “constant or near-constant corticosteroids and other topical medications.” The Board denied a higher rating because the condition did not affect a higher percentage of his body and, while it did require “constant or near-constant” use of topical corticosteroids, this was not considered “systemic therapy.”

The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) reversed the Board’s decision, holding that the plain language of the diagnostic code requires that the phrase “systemic therapy . . . includes the use of corticosteroids without any limitation to such use being oral or parenteral as opposed to topical.”

The Federal Circuit reversed, finding that the CAVC “gave an overly broad reading of the term ‘systemic therapy’ in DC 7806 that encompasses any and all forms of topical corticosteroid treatment.” The Court held that “[t]he structure and content of DC 7806 make clear that it contemplates two types of therapy, ‘systemic therapy’ and ‘topical therapy’” and that it distinguishes between the two. Systemic therapy “means ‘treatment pertaining to or affecting the body as a whole,’ whereas topical therapy means ‘treatment pertaining to a particular surface area.’”

The Court noted that topical treatment could potentially be administered on a large enough scale that it would effectively meet the definition of “systemic.” However, that was not the case with Mr. Johnson – and the Court stated that the “mere possibility that the use of a topical corticosteroid could amount to systemic therapy in some cases does not mean all applications of topical corticosteroids mean systemic therapy.” The Court added that the alternative method of rating under DC 7806 (based on the amount of skin affected) further supports the distinction between topical and systemic.

FULL DECISION

DAV: PETITION TO REVIEW M21-1 PROVISION DISMISSED

Disabled American Veterans v. Sec’y of Veterans Affairs, 859 F.3d 1072 (Fed. Cir. 2017)

HELD: The Federal Circuit can only review M21-1 provisions that are subject to 5 U.S.C. §§ 552(a)(1) and 553 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). VA altered the definition of what constitutes a “medically unexplained multisymptom illness” (MUCMI) in its procedure manual (M21-1), but the Court determined that it could not review this M21-1 change because it did not fall under either § 552(a)(1) or § 553.

SUMMARY: Section 552(a)(1) of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) “refers to agency actions that must be published in the Federal Register.” Section 553 “refers to agency rulemaking that must comply with notice-and-comment procedures under the [APA].” VA regulation 38 C.F.R. § 3.317 defines “a medially unexplained multisymptom illness” (MUCMI) as “a diagnosed illness without conclusive pathophysiology or etiology.”

VA consolidates it policies and procedures into a manual called the M21-1. Any VA employee can request revisions to the M21-1. On the request of an employee, the Secretary revised the definition of MUCMI in the M21-1 from an illness with “no conclusive physiology or etiology” to one with “both an inconclusive pathology, and an inconclusive etiology.” The Secretary also added that sleep apnea cannot be presumptively service connected under 38 C.F.R. § 3.317 “since it is a diagnosable condition.”

Disabled American Veterans (DAV) petitioned the Federal Circuit to review these M21-1 changes, arguing that the changes were similar to cases where the Court had previously reviewed VA policy changes. The Federal Circuit distinguished its prior cases, noting that they fell under 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(1) because they involved agency actions that had to be published in the Federal Register. See Splane v. West, 216 F.3d 1058 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (reviewing a precedential General Counsel opinion); LeFevre v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, 66 F.3d 1191 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (reviewing VA’s decision to not add certain conditions to the list of presumptive conditions related to Agent Orange exposure); Military Order of the Purple Heart v. Sec’y of Veterans Affairs, 580 F.3d 1293 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (reviewing a VA Fast Letter).

DAV argued that the Federal Circuit should review the M21-1 revisions because “the revisions announce substantive rules subject to § 553 which should be voided for failure to provide the required notice and comment.” The Court rejected this argument, finding that (1) “VA does not intend for the M21-1 Manual to carry the force of law” and (2) the M21-1 is not binding on VA or the courts.

The Federal Circuit noted that an individual veteran who is adversely affected by an M21-1 provision can challenge that provision by contesting “the validity of that provision as applied to the facts of his case” in the course of a direct appeal.  However, the Court dismissed this petition, holding that it lacked jurisdiction to review manual provisions that “are interpretations adopted by the agency, not published in the Federal Register, not binding on the Board itself, and contained within an administrative staff manual.”

FULL DECISION

Molitor: DUTY TO OBTAIN ANOTHER’S RECORDS TO CORROBORATE ASSAULT; CREDIBILITY; EVIDENCE OF BEHAVIOR CHANGES

Molitor v. Shulkin, docket no. 15-2585 (June 1, 2017)

HELD: "[w]hen a claimant adequately identifies relevant records of fellow servicemembers that may aid in corroborating a claimed personal assault, the duty to assist requires VA to attempt to obtain such records or, at a minimum, to notify the claimant why it will not undertake such efforts.” In addition, the Court held that “a claimant’s credibility does not abrogate or extinguish VA’s duty to assist a claimant in developing her claim” and that “a lack of evidence of behavior changes in service does not constitute negative evidence against a claim for service connection for PTSD based on an in-service personal assault.”

SUMMARY: In 2003, veteran Jaclyn Molitor filed a claim for service connection for PTSD due to military sexual trauma (MST). A 2004 VA examiner diagnosed PTSD due to childhood trauma, and the VA regional office (RO) denied the claim. Ms. Molitor appealed that decision.

Her Vet Center treatment records noted that she was sexually assaulted in service as part of a military police (MP) hazing. She did not report the incident for fear of retribution. Her Vet Center counselor, Cindy Macaulay, wrote a letter stating that Ms. Molitor had repressed memories of the incident and that those memories were coming back with therapy. Ms. Macauley acknowledged the veteran’s other diagnoses, childhood sexual abuse, and post-service events that “complicated the case,” but opined that it was “at least as likely as not” that her PTSD was related to her in-service assaults. Attached to the letter was a sexual trauma markers worksheet that included the approximate date of the assault, location, unit, and names of several witnesses. Ms. Molitor also submitted a statement providing additional details about the assault.

The RO continued to deny the claim in a Statement of the Case (SOC) that Ms. Molitor appealed. In September 2006, she was afforded a Board hearing, during which she testified that she was raped by four or five soldiers during an MP hazing and that she “beat the hell out of the sergeant” in the group.

In July 2007, the Board remanded for additional development. In January 2010, Ms. Macauley submitted another letter in support of the claim. The next month, Ms. Molitor underwent another VA PTSD examination. The examiner questioned her credibility because she denied prior drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness on her service entrance examination report. The examiner noted that there was no evidence of behavior changes in her file and therefore determined that it was less likely that her PTSD was related to service. Later that month, the RO continued to deny the claim in a Supplemental SOC.

In June 2011, the Board remanded again for additional development. In April 2012, the Appeals Management Center determined that Ms. Molitor’s claimed in-service assaults could not be verified.

Her subsequent Vet Center treatment records showed that Ms. Molitor had “cut back on her meds” and was remembering more about the military assaults. Ms. Molitor submitted statements with additional details, including names of the other MPs who raped her, as well as the name of another female MP, Private Lutz, who she believed had also been raped. Ms. Molitor indicated that Private Lutz committed suicide in service. She asked VA to check her file, as well as the files of other women she served with, whom she also identified, for evidence of in-service assault or post-service claims for service connection for PTSD due to MST.

In December 2012, the Board remanded the claim again for another hearing. Ms. Molitor again described the hazing rape and stated that she was subsequently transferred without explanation. Ms. Macauley, her Vet Center therapist, also testified at the hearing, and stated that she believed Ms. Molitor had been raped in service because she consistently reported the details of the assaults. Ms. Macauley explained that the “inconsistencies” perceived by VA were the result of her remembering more details, rather than changing her story.

The Board remanded the case three more times for additional VA medical opinions, including “a medical expert opinion to resolve the conflicting diagnoses.” In January 2015, a VA psychologist diagnosed borderline personality disorder and PTSD due to childhood abuse, and determined that both diagnoses preexisted service. She rejected Ms. Macauley’s diagnosis of PTSD due to MST as “not supported by the record.”

In its May 2015 decision, the Board denied the claim. The Board determined that VA satisfied its duty to assist, but did not discuss Ms. Molitor’s requests to obtain other servicemembers’ records. The Board found Ms. Molitor’s statements not credible because they were “internally inconsistent and contradicted by other evidence of record.” The Board rejected Ms. Macauley’s opinions because they were based on Ms. Molitor’s non-credible statements, and afforded “great probative weight to the negative VA examiners’ opinions.”

On appeal, Ms. Molitor argued that VA did not satisfy its duty to assist because it did not attempt to obtain records from her fellow servicemembers that she had identified, as required by VA’s own G.C. Precedent Opinion 05-14. The Secretary argued that Ms. Molitor had not adequately identified records that could aid in corroborating the claimed assaults, and that VA would not be able to disclose those records without written consent from the servicemembers or a court order. The Secretary further argued that “there is an ‘umbrella of credibility’ that hangs over all of the prongs of the duty to assist” and that the Board’s adverse credibility determination was adequate to explain why no further assistance was provided in this case.

The Court agreed with the veteran. The Court explained that this case involves VA’s “interpretation of intertwining and sometimes conflicting” statutory duties to (1) assist claimants and (2) protect the privacy of all servicemembers. The Court noted that in claims for service connection for PTSD based on personal assault, 38 C.F.R. § 3.304(f)(5) “lowers the evidentiary burden for corroborating the occurrence of an in-service personal assault stressor.” This regulation codified VA’s “existing internal policies that provided for additional development assistance in claims for PTSD based on personal assault.”

Under 38 U.S.C. § 5103A, VA’s duty to assist “includes making reasonable efforts to obtain relevant records from VA or other Federal departments or agencies that have been adequately identified by the claimant.” Once this duty is triggered, VA must make as many requests as necessary unless “it is reasonably certain that such records do not exist” or that “further efforts to obtain those records would be futile” or there is “no reasonable possibility” that any additional assistance would help substantiate the claim. This latter category applies to claims that are “inherently incredible or clearly lack merit.” 38 C.F.R. § 3.159(d)(2).

The Court summarized G.C. Precedent Opinion 05-14 as requiring VA to make reasonable efforts to obtain another individual’s records “if (a) those records were adequately identified, would be relevant to the [v]eteran’s claim, and would aid in substantiating the claim; and (b) VA would be authorized to disclose the relevant portions of such records to the [v]eteran under the Privacy Act and 38 U.S.C. §§ 5701 and 7332.” The latter requirement cites three statutes that limit VA’s disclosure of another individual’s records, but the Precedent Opinion also identified three exceptions in the Privacy Act – (1) written consent from the individual, (2) a court order, or (3) disclosure for “‘routine use’ compatible with the purpose for which the record was collected.”

The Precedent Opinion further concluded that neither the duty to assist (§ 5103A) nor 38 C.F.R. § 3.304(f)(5) “requires VA to solicit written statements from fellow servicemembers” to corroborate a claimed assault. However, the Court noted that it had previously addressed this issue in Forcier v. Nicholson, 19 Vet.App. 414, 422 (2006), which held that VA’s duty to assist may require VA to obtain such written statements if the claimant provides the names of the perpetrator(s) and/or witnesses.

The Court determined that during the course of this appeal Ms. Molitor had adequately identified several individuals whose records could help corroborate her claimed assaults and that these records were relevant to her claim. The Court thus determined that the Board erred by not considering the applicability of G.C. Precedent Opinion 05-14 when it found that VA had satisfied its duty to assist.

With respect to the Secretary’s “umbrella of credibility” argument, the Court held that “a claimant’s credibility does not abrogate or extinguish VA’s duty to assist a claimant in developing her claim because such development may produce evidence that substantiates the claim or otherwise bolsters or rehabilitates a claimant’s credibility.”

The Court thus held that when a claimant for service connection for PTSD based on personal assault “adequately identifies relevant records of fellow servicemembers that may aid in corroborating the claimed assault, G.C. Precedent Opinion 05-14 is applicable to the claim and VA must either attempt to obtain such records or notify the claimant why it will not undertake such efforts.”

The Court further noted that “a lack of evidence of behavior changes in service does not constitute negative evidence against a claim for service connection for PTSD based on an in-service personal assault.” The Court added: “Because behavior changes do not necessarily manifest immediately after a personal assault, it cannot be expected that they would appear in service in every instance of an assault; therefore, a lack of behavior changes in service cannot act as evidence against the occurrence of the assault.” 

FULL DECISION