Burris: Education benefits, equitable relief

Burris v. Wilkie888 F.3d 1352 (May 2, 2018)

HELD: The CAVC lacks the authority to grant substantive (i.e., monetary) equitable relief. 

SUMMARY: In this consolidated case, the sons of two veterans were denied equitable relief for extension of education benefits and reimbursement of education-related expenses. In both cases, the Board held that it did not have the “authority to grant additional benefits on an equitable basis.” The CAVC affirmed the Board’s decisions in both cases, holding that only the Secretary can grant equitable relief in certain circumstances and that the CAVC itself lacked authority to grant such relief. 

On appeal to the Federal Circuit, the appellants argued that the CAVC wrongly determined that it lacked jurisdiction to grant equitable relief. The Federal Circuit disagreed, noting that the relevant statute regarding equitable relief, 38 U.S.C. § 503, only allows the Secretary to provide such relief – not the Court. The Federal Circuit further found that the CAVC’s inherent equitable powers do not allow it to grant the equitable relief sought by the appellants in these cases – namely, monetary relief. The Court acknowledged that the CAVC does have the “authority to grant certain forms of non-substantive equitable relief,” such as the authority to certify classes, issue judgment nunc pro tunc, and consider equitable defenses. However, the Court found that those forms of relief were either based on other statutes or were procedural – and were not the same as the monetary relief sought in the present cases. The Court thus held that the CAVC correctly affirmed the Board’s decisions – and correctly determined that it lacked authority to grant this type of equitable relief.