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.”