Ollis v. Shulkin, docket no. 2016-1315 (Fed. Cir. May 26, 2017)

HELD: “[W]hen recovery is predicated on a referral theory involving an unforeseeable event under § 1151(a)(1)(B), § 1151(a)(1) requires that VA medical care proximately cause the medical treatment or care … during which the unforeseeable event occurred.” In other words, in cases where a disability results from an unforeseeable event due to a medical procedure performed by a non-VA doctor or in a non-VA facility, the question of causation for § 1151 purposes is whether the medical procedure itself “was a remote consequence of VA treatment.”

SUMMARY: Veteran Paul Ollis filed a claim for service connection under 38 U.S.C. § 1151 for disabilities that resulted from a medical procedure (mini-MAZE) that was allegedly recommended by his VA doctor, but performed by a private doctor in a non-VA facility. Although Mr. Ollis’s VA doctor had recommended the mini-MAZE procedure, his private doctor referred him to the physician who actually performed the procedure. Mr. Ollis asserted that his phrenic nerve was damaged during the procedure, causing paralysis of the diaphragm that resulted in shortness of breath and decreased lung function.  

The VA regional office and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals denied service connection for these disabilities under § 1151, and the Veterans Court affirmed. In its decision, the Court noted that the procedure was performed by a non-VA doctor in a non-VA facility, and that there was no contractual relationship between VA and the doctor. The Court also determined that there was “no due process right to notice that referral to a private doctor could affect benefits under § 1151(a).”

On appeal, the Federal Circuit first discussed the history of 38 U.S.C. § 1151, which provides benefits for nonservice-connected conditions to veterans with disabilities resulting from VA medical care. The statute requires that the injury was “caused by” VA care and that the “proximate cause” was “carelessness, negligence, lack of proper skill, error in judgment, or similar instances of fault on the part of the [VA] . . . [or] an event not reasonably foreseeable.” The relevant question addressed by the Court was “how to construe the statutory requirements of § 1151 when the disability-causing event occurred during a medical procedure not performed by a VA doctor or in a VA facility,” which the Court labelled “referral situations.”

The Court examined the two alternative “proximate causation” requirements – the negligence requirement (§ 1151(a)(1)(A)) and the “event not reasonably foreseeable” requirement (§ 1151(a)(1)(B)).

The standard for proving negligence under § 1151(a)(1)(A) is similar to the standard in medical malpractice cases: “It requires that VA medical care actually cause the claimant’s disability . . . and that, in providing such care, VA’s failure ‘to exercise the degree of care that would be expected of a reasonable health care provider proximately caused the disability.’” This proximate cause requirement “incorporates traditional tort law notions of proximate cause,” which “defines its scope in terms of foreseeability, extending only to those foreseeable risks created by the negligent conduct.”

The Veterans Court rejected Mr. Ollis’s argument that VA was at fault for negligently referring him to a particular doctor because there was no proximate cause between VA negligence and the injury – and the Federal Circuit saw no legal error in the Court’s analysis on this point. However, the Federal Circuit found that the Veterans Court did not address the remaining question of whether Mr. Ollis’s VA doctors were negligent under § 1151(a)(1)(A) for recommending the mini-MAZE procedure in the first place.

In examining the alternative proximate cause requirement under § 1151(a)(1)(B), the Federal Circuit noted that a theory under this provision in a referral situation requires the interpretation of the statutory terms “not reasonably foreseeable,” “proximate cause of the disability or death,” and “caused by.” The Court stated that “not reasonably foreseeable” is an event that “‘a reasonable health care provider would not have considered to be an ordinary risk of the treatment provided’ and not ‘the type of risk that a reasonable health care provider would have disclosed in connection with . . . informed consent,’” quoting 38 C.F.R. § 3.361(d)(2). The Federal Circuit stated that the Veterans Court did not address this requirement.

In order to satisfy this alternative “proximate cause” requirement, the “veteran need only show that the disability or death was proximately caused by the unforeseeable event, and a showing of fault is not required.” The Federal Circuit provided an example of “a situation in which an unforeseeable event is not the proximate cause of a disability” – i.e., “if phrenic nerve severance would not foreseeably cause shortness of breath or decreased lung function.” The Federal Circuit stated that it was clear in this case that “an unforeseeable event such as phrenic nerve severance can be the proximate cause of the disability,” and thus satisfy the proximate cause requirement of § 1151. The Veterans Court also did not address this requirement.

The Federal Circuit stated, however, that even if Mr. Ollis satisfied the “unforeseeable event” requirement of § 1151(a)(1)(B), he would still need to satisfy the “caused by” language of § 1151(a)(1). The Court stated that “[b]y definition a claimant cannot show that an injury that is unforeseeable was proximately caused by VA medical care,” but the Court added that “it seems quite clear that Congress intended some concept of remoteness to be inherent in the cause requirement of § 1151(a)(1)” – and that this “remoteness requirement is the same as the traditional proximate cause requirement but without fault and applicable to a limited sequence of events.” In other words, this is a “lesser proximate cause requirement.” In this case, “only the performance of the mini-MAZE procedure and not the nerve severance or the resulting shortness of breath and decreased lung function must be proximately caused by VA medical treatment to satisfy the cause requirement of § 1151(a)(1).”

The Court remanded the case to the CAVC to address the question of “whether VA medical care proximately caused the mini-MAZE procedure,” and summarized its holding on this point as follows:

[W]hen recovery is predicated on a referral theory involving an unforeseeable event under § 1151(a)(1)(B), § 1151(a)(1) requires that VA medical care proximately cause the medical treatment or care (here, the mini-MAZE procedure) during which the unforeseeable event occurred (here, the severance of the phrenic nerve). Section 1151(a)(1)(B) further requires that the unforeseeable event – phrenic nerve damage – proximately cause the disability. As such, the chain of causation has two components (neither of which requires fault) – i.e., proximate cause between VA medical care and the treatment, and proximate cause between the unforeseeable event and the disability.

(emphasis added). The Federal Circuit identified the CAVC’s legal errors as framing the question as (1) whether Mr. Ollis’s disability was a remote consequence of VA treatment, and (2) whether VA treatment caused Mr. Ollis to use a particular private doctor – when the relevant question was whether the VA treatment proximately caused Mr. Ollis to undergo the mini-MAZE procedure.

Mr. Ollis also argued that VA violated his due process rights by failing to inform him that referral to a private facility for the mini-MAZE procedure “could extinguish his eligibility for benefits under § 1151(a).” The Federal Circuit rejected this argument and held that “[t]here is no due process right to notice regarding conditions that might in the future affect an individual veteran’s right to monetary benefits … before the veteran incurs an injury or applies for such benefits.”

Advocacy note: This second holding is important to keep in mind, particularly with VA’s and veterans’ increasing reliance on non-VA doctors through the Choice program. Since VA is under no legal obligation to inform veterans that they may lose eligibility for § 1151 benefits if something goes wrong when they use a private provider, advocates should inform their clients of this.