Procopio: Blue Water Navy Veterans Entitled to 38 U.S.C. § 1116 Presumption

Procopio v. Wilkie, docket no. 2017-1821 (en banc) (Fed. Cir. Jan. 29, 2019)

HELD: Blue Water Navy veterans who served in the “12 nautical mile territorial sea” of the Republic of Vietnam are entitled to the presumption of herbicide exposure and service connection under 38 U.S.C. § 1116.

SUMMARY: Mr. Procopio served aboard the USS Intrepid from 1964 to 1967, during which time the ship was deployed in the offshore waters of the Republic of Vietnam. In 2006 and 2007, he sought service connection for diabetes and prostate cancer, which the Regional Office denied in 2009. The Board affirmed the denial, as did the CAVC, relying on Haas v. Peake, 525 F.3d 1168 (Fed. Cir. 2008). In Haas, the Federal Circuit had held that the language in 38 U.S.C. § 1116, “served in the Republic of Vietnam,” was ambiguous and thus deferred to VA’s “reasonable interpretation” that required “duty or visitation on the landmass” of Vietnam or in the inland waterways in order to be entitled to the presumption of service connection for certain herbicide-related conditions. Haas, 525 F.3d at 1184, 1195.

Mr. Procopio appealed to the Federal Circuit and the Court asked the parties to address (1) whether the phrase “served in the Republic of Vietnam” includes “service in the offshore waters within the legally recognized territorial limits of the Republic of Vietnam” and (2) what role, if any, does the “pro-claimant canon” of interpretation of veterans’ statutes play in this analysis.

The Federal Circuit, en banc, reviewed the history of the Agent Orange Act of 1991 and VA’s implementing regulations, and assessed VA’s interpretation of the statutory language under the analysis set forth in Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-43 (1984). Chevron directs courts to first assess “whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue.” If so, the court is to “give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress.” If the statutory language is ambiguous, step two of the Chevron analysis requires courts to determine “whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute” – and, if the agency’s interpretation is “reasonable,” Chevron requires courts to defer to that reasonable interpretation.

In this case, the Federal Circuit determined at step one of the Chevron analysis that “Congress has spoken directly to the question of whether Mr. Procopio, who served in the territorial sea of the ‘Republic of Vietnam,’ ‘served in the Republic of Vietnam.’” The Court based this determination on international law which “confirms that, when the Agent Orange Act was passed in 1991, the ‘Republic of Vietnam’ included both its landmass and its 12 nautical mile territorial sea.” The Court also relied on the language in § 1116 that includes “active military, naval, or air service . . . in the Republic of Vietnam” as reinforcing the “conclusion that Congress was expressly extending the presumption to naval personnel who served in the territorial sea.”

Because the Court determined at Chevron step one that Congress’s intent was clear, it did not reach step two. The Court thus overruled Haas and held that veterans who served in the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of the “Republic of Vietnam” are entitled to the presumption of service connection under 38 U.S.C. § 1116.

FULL DECISION

NOTE: On November 2, 2018, docket no. 17-1679, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Gray v. Wilkie, to address whether the Federal Circuit has jurisdiction to review VA’s interpretation of its own regulation when VA issues that interpretive rule in its adjudication manual. The manual provision in question is the one that excludes deep water harbors from its definition of “inland waterways.” On February 1, 2019, the Solicitor General submitted a memorandum to the Supreme Court “suggesting that this case may become moot” in light of Procopio. The memorandum notes that “the Solicitor General has not yet determined whether to file a petition for a writ of certiorari in Procopio” and, therefore, the Gray case is not yet moot – nor is it likely to become moot before the February 25, 2019 oral argument. However, the Solicitor General stated that the case may become moot after oral argument but before a decision is issued.  

LINK TO GRAY DOCKET: https://www.supremecourt.gov/docket/docketfiles/html/public/17-1679.html

[My opinion: It is unlikely that VA will ask the Supreme Court to review Procopio. It is more likely that VA will pressure Congress to amend the statute to define “Republic of Vietnam” as limited to its landmass and inland waterways.]

Rosinski: Attorney challenges VA policy re: access to draft rating decisions

Rosinski v. Wilkie, docket no. 18-0678 (en banc) (Jan. 24, 2019) 

HELD: Attorney challenging VA’s policy to provide draft rating decisions to VSOs, but not attorneys, has direct standing and third-party standing to bring the challenge, and the appropriate remedy is to order the Secretary to issue a decision on his request for access to draft rating decisions.

 SUMMARY: Mr. Rosinski, veterans’ attorney, petitioned the Court for a writ of mandamus to compel VA to provide him with the same access to preliminary draft rating decisions that VA makes available to VSOs. This is the second petition filed on this issue. The Court dismissed the first one for lack of standing.

 The Court now determined that Mr. Rosinski has direct standing to have the Court hear his petition because (1) he has a statutory right under 38 U.S.C. § 5904(a) to represent clients throughout the VA claims process and the Secretary’s policy violates that right; (2) the Secretary is required under 38 U.S.C. § 5701(b) to disclosed “files, records, reports, and other papers and documents” to the “duly authorized agent or representative of a claimant”; and (3) “the Secretary’s policy results in both tangible and intangible harm” to the petitioner.

 The Court also determined that Mr. Rosinski has third-party standing on behalf of his clients to bring this petition. The Court noted that each of his clients “has a due process right to fair adjudication of his claim for benefits” and that while VA’s policy granting VSOs review of draft decisions is discretionary, “it results in a system where some veterans – those represented by attorneys – are deprived of a benefit afforded to others – those represented by VSOs.” The Court also found that because he has “existing attorney-client relationships with [his] clients, . . . he has a sufficiently close relationship to warrant third-party standing,” regardless of the fact that he “has not identified a specific client.” The Court further found that “there is a hindrance to the petitioner’s clients’ ability to protect their own interests . . . because of the structure of the VA adjudication system” and that the petitioner “is in a better position to assert his clients’ rights in this matter than any one of his clients is individually.”

While the Court found that Mr. Rosinski has standing to have his petition heard, the Court declined the address the merits of the petition because it determined that he has alternative means to obtain his relief – namely, by obtaining an appealable decision from VA. The Court granted the petition, in part, and directed the Secretary to issue an official, appealable decision on Mr. Rosinski’s request for access to draft rating decisions within 30 days. The Court noted that the Secretary “has the power to resolve this case with a single stroke of his pen” by changing the policy to allow ALL accredited representatives access to draft decisions. The Court added that the Secretary’s inaction in the year since the prior petition “is troubling” and that “the Secretary should consider whether he – and the veterans Congress charged him to assist – would be better served by voluntarily changing his policy, rather than by waiting for the lengthy appeals process to run its course.”

FULL DECISION

Demery: Notice of Appeal Filed After Veteran's Death

Demery v. Wilkie, docket no. 17-3469 (per curiam order) (Jan. 17, 2019)

HELD: Timely Notice of Appeal filed after the veteran’s death was not valid with respect to the substituted party, but the eligible substitute may amend the NOA to name her as the appellant and ask the Court to relate the amended NOA back to the date the original NOA was filed so as to make it timely.

SUMMARY: On October 3, 2017, the Court received a timely NOA of a June 22, 2017 Board decision. Shortly afterwards, the attorneys who filed the NOA notified the Court that the veteran had passed away and filed a motion to substitute his surviving spouse. The Court then discovered that the veteran had passed away in August 2017 – after the Board’s decision, but before the NOA had been filed. Because “a dead person may not appeal a Board decision,” the Court found that the NOA was “defective,” but still allowed the surviving spouse to file an amended NOA and to relate that NOA back to the date of the original filing.

FULL DECISION

George: Presumption of Soundness, CUE, Retroactivity

George v. Wilkie, docket no. 16-2174 (Jan. 4, 2019) 

HELD: In order to rebut the presumption of soundness, 38 U.S.C. § 1111 has always required VA to prove that a condition both pre-existed and was not aggravated by service. However, that is not how VA interpreted the statute prior to 2003 – and the Court declined to retroactively apply the correct statutory interpretation, as set forth in Wagner v. Principi, 370 F.3d 1089 (Fed. Cir. 2004), to an appeal alleging CUE in a pre-2003 final decision. 

SUMMARY: Kevin George was diagnosed with schizophrenia in service. A Medical Board report found that the condition pre-existed and was aggravated by service, but a Physical Evaluation Board found that the pre-existing condition was not aggravated by service. He filed a claim for service connection a few months after discharge and was denied in 1976. The Board denied the claim in 1977. 

In 2014, he filed a request to revise the 1977 Board decision on the basis of clear-and-unmistakable error (CUE), alleging that the Board failed to correctly apply the presumption of soundness by not rebutting “with clear and unmistakable evidence that his condition was not aggravated by service.” The Board found no CUE in the 1977 decision, noting that the Board at the time was not required to find clear and unmistakable evidence of a lack of aggravation. The Board acknowledged the Federal Circuit’s holding in Wagner v. Principi, 370 F.3d 1089 (Fed. Cir. 2004), but stated that “judicial decisions that formulate new interpretations of the law subsequent to a VA decision cannot form the basis of CUE.” 

On appeal at the CAVC, the Court outlined the relevant law. The Court first noted that the presumption of soundness statute in 1977 (and today) allowed the Secretary to rebut only by showing of clear and unmistakable evidence of bothpre-existence andlack of aggravation. However, VA’s implementing regulation in 1977, 38 C.F.R. § 3.304(b), only required clear and unmistakable evidence that the condition pre-existed service. VA invalidated the regulation in 2003. Wagner was decided in 2004.

The Court explained the requirements for establishing CUE in a final decision, noting that 38 C.F.R. § 20.1403(e) “states that CUE ‘does not include the otherwise correct application of a statute or regulation where, subsequent to the Board decision challenged, there has been a change in the interpretation of the statute or regulation.’” The Court cited DAV v. Gober, 234 F.3d 682, 698 (Fed. Cir. 2000) in holding that “[t]he new interpretation of a statute can only retroactively [a]ffect decisions still open on direct review, not those decisions that are final.”

The Court then discussed the Federal Circuit’s decision in Wagner and its subsequent holding in Jordan v. Nicholson, 401 F.3d 1296 (Fed. Cir. 2005). In Jordan, the Court applied the DAV rule to Wagner, holding that “CUE does not arise from a new regulatory interpretation of a statute.” In other words, even though Wagner explained that the presumption of soundness statute has always meant that it can only be rebutted with clear and unmistakable evidence of both pre-existence and a lack of aggravation, a claimant could not raise a CUE challenge to a final decision based on the invalidation of VA’s implementing regulation that only required a showing of pre-existence to rebut. 

Finally, the Court discussed the Patrick line of primarily nonprecedential cases that addressed WagnerJordan, and retroactivity in a CUE case. In Patrick, as in the present appeal, the claimant argued CUE in a prior final decision based on the incorrect application of the presumption of soundness. The CAVC affirmed the Board’s denial and the Federal Circuit remanded for the Court to consider the application of Wagner, which had recently been decided at that time. 

On remand, the CAVC again affirmed the Board’s denial, citing Jordan for holding that Wagner’s “new” interpretation of the presumption of soundness did not retroactively apply in a CUE case. Mrs. Patrick again appealed, and, in Patrick III, also a nonprecedential decision, the Federal Circuit explained that Jordan dealt with “whether a change in the regulatory interpretation of a statute had retroactive effect on CUE [motions], not whether [its] interpretation of the statute in Wagner had retroactive effect on CUE [motions].” The Federal Circuit described the Jordan holding as limited, stating that “[u]nlike changes in regulations and statutes, which are prospective, [the Court’s] interpretation of a statute is retrospective in that it explains what the statute has meant since the date of enactment.” In other words, “Wagner did not change the law but explained what [section] 1111 has always meant.” The Federal Circuit remanded the matter back to the CAVC to determine whether VA rebutted the presumption of soundness with clear and unmistakable evidence of a lack of aggravation. The CAVC vacated the Board’s decision, and the attorney filed an application for EAJA fees. 

The CAVC denied the EAJA application, finding that the Secretary’s position was substantially justified. Again, Mrs. Patrick appealed to the Federal Circuit. In Patrick v. Shinseki (Patrick VI), 668 F.3d 1325 (Fed. Cir. 2011) – the only precedential decision in this line of cases – the Federal Circuit reversed the CAVC’s decision and remanded for the CAVC to consider substantial justification under the “totality of circumstances” test. In a footnote, the Federal Circuit noted that in Patrick III, it had rejected the CAVC’s determination that the correct “interpretation of section 1111 did not apply retroactively in the context of a CUE claim,” and repeated that “our interpretation of § 1111 . . . did not change the law but explained what [section] 1111 has always meant.”

With respect to retroactivity and CUE, the Court acknowledged that the Federal Circuit’s interpretation of section 1111 in Wagner is “an authoritative statement of what the statute meant before as well as after” that decision, but still found that the 2004 Wagner decision “cannot defeat the finality of a 1977 Board decision . . . because consideration of CUE requires the application of the law as it was understood at the time of the 1977 decision.” The Court explained: “Applying a statute or regulation as it was interpreted and understood at the time a prior final decision is rendered does not become CUE by virtue of a subsequent interpretation of the statute or regulation by this Court or the Federal Circuit.” 

In applying the law to the facts of this case, the Court noted that the Secretary conceded that the Board erred when it determined that the 1977 Board was not required to find clear and unmistakable evidence of a lack of aggravation due to the 1977 version of the implementing regulation. The Court disagreed with this concession of error, stating that “it is not clear how the Board could have ignored [38 C.F.R. § 3.304(b)] or why the Board would have been required to find clear and unmistakable evidence of aggravation in 1977.” [ABK note: I don’t know . . . maybe because the statute says so? Call me crazy . . . ] The Court held: “While the Federal Circuit’s interpretation of the presumption of soundness statute in Wagner sets forth what the statute has always meant, it was not the interpretation or understanding of the statute before its issuance.” The Court noted the Federal Circuit’s finding in Jordan that “there was a change in interpretation of section 1111” when VA invalidated § 3.304(b) and thus determined that “Wagner does not apply retroactively to final decisions.” 

In response to the argument based on the Patrick line of cases, the Court held that Patrick III is not binding precedent and the footnote in Patrick VI is dicta. The Court added that the statements in Patrick III and Patrick VI regarding “Wagner’s retroactivity conflict with other precedential Federal Circuit caselaw,” specifically DAV, which held that “[t]he new interpretation of a statute can only retroactively [a]ffect decisions still open on direct review, not those decision[s] that are final.” To bolster its decision, the Court stated: “The impact of allowing judicial decisions interpreting statutory provisions issued after final VA decisions to support allegations of CUE would cause a tremendous hardship on an already overburdened VA system of administering veterans benefits.” 

The Court further found that even if Wagner applied retroactively, Mr. George’s CUE allegation would fail because he did not prove that the 2016 Board erred in determining that the 1977 Board’s errors did not manifestly change the outcome of its decision. The Court thus affirmed the 2016 Board’s decision.  

In a well-crafted dissent that will likely form the foundation for an appeal to the Federal Circuit, Judge Bartley stated that “the will of Congress, not VA, should prevail.” She reiterated that the Federal Circuit “‘soundly rejected’ the argument ‘that this court’s interpretation of section IIII did not apply retroactively in the context of a CUE claim” citing the Patrick VI footnote, adding that she was “not willing to dismiss this unambiguous and germane guidance from our reviewing court, particularly when that guidance is grounded in the unalterable principle that veteran-friendly congressional intent holds primacy over a VA interpretation that is less beneficial to veterans.” She rejected the majority’s concern of causing “a tremendous hardship” on VA, stating that she would have “no reservations about requiring VA to remedy the decades old errors that prohibit otherwise deserving veterans and their dependents from receiving the benefits to which they are statutorily entitled.”

FULL DECISION

Burkhart: DIC, 38 U.S.C. § 1151, & VA home loan guaranty

Burkhart v. Wilkiedocket no. 16-1334 (Jan. 3, 2019)

HELD: Surviving spouse of veteran whose death was service connected under 38 U.S.C. § 1151 and who is thus entitled to DIC benefits is not entitled to home loan guaranty benefits under Ch. 37. 

SUMMARY: Surviving spouse was granted dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) after her husband’s death was deemed service connected under 38 U.S.C. § 1151. She sought and obtained a certificate of eligibility (COE) for a VA home loan in 2007, but never entered into a loan agreement. In 2013, she again requested an eligibility determination for a loan guaranty and was informed that she was not eligible and that the 2007 COE was issue in error. 

On appeal, the Court reviewed the relevant statutory provisions and determined that she was not eligible under the plain language or the legislative history of 38 U.S.C. § 1151 or Ch. 37. The Court also determined that the “incontestability” provision of 38 U.S.C. § 3721 applies to the relationship between the government and lending institutions – not between the government and those who are eligible for a loan guaranty. Finally, the Court addressed the appellant’s arguments regarding the Court’s ability to provide relief based on its equitable powers. The Court acknowledged that while it has equitable authority, “that authority is constrained by the jurisdiction Congress conferred on the Court.” The Court discussed the four equitable principles argued by the appellant – injunctive relief, equitable estoppel, laches, and waiver – and determined that none were available in this case as a form of relief. 

FULL DECISION

Kisor: Supreme Court grants certiorari

The Supreme Court added Kisor v. Wilkie to its docket.

LINK TO SCOTUS ORDER: https://www.supremecourt.gov/orders/courtorders/121018zor_f2ah.pdf

The Court will limit its review to the first question in the petition - whether the Court should overrule Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997) and Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410 (1945), with respect to deferring to VA’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulations.

LINK TO PETITION: https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/18/18-15/51909/20180629164148460_Kisor.cert.pet.pdf

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

Saunders: Pain is a disability subject to compensation

Saunders v. Wilkie, 886 F.3d 1356 (Apr. 3, 2018)

HELD: “‘[D]isability’ in [38 U.S.C.] § 1110 refers to the functional impairment of earning capacity, not the underlying cause of said disability” – and “pain is an impairment because it diminishes the body’s ability to function, and that pain need not be diagnosed as connected to a current underlying condition to function as an impairment.”

SUMMARY: This case overrules Sanchez-Benitez v. West, 13 Vet.App. 282, 285 (1999), which held that “pain alone is not a disability for the purpose of VA disability compensation.”

Veteran Melba Saunders served in the U.S. Army from 1987 to 1994. She had no knee problems prior to service. Her service medical records show treatment for “knee pain.” Her separation examination report notes a history of swollen knee.

In 1994, the RO denied her claim for service connection for her knees because she failed to appear for an examination. She did not appeal that decision and it became final. In 2008, she requested reopening, and RO denied service connection for her bilateral knees because it found no evidence of treatment. She appealed and was afforded a C&P examination. The examiner diagnosed “subjective bilateral knee pain” – and concluded that this condition is “at least as likely as not” related to service.

The RO asked the examiner for clarification, noting that “pain” is not a diagnosis. The examiner replied that there is no pathology to render a diagnosis – and that his theory is based on the chronology of events. The RO again denied service connection, and Ms. Saunders appealed to the Board.  

 The Board denied her claim, stating that “pain alone is not a disability,” and citing Sanchez-Benitez. Ms. Saunders appealed to the Court – and the CAVC affirmed the Board’s denial.

The veteran appealed to Federal Circuit, which overruled Sanchez-Benitez and held that (1) pain can constitute a disability under 38 U.S.C. § 1110; (2) the word “disability” in the statute refers to functional impairment; and (2) pain alone may be a functional impairment.

The Federal Circuit examined the plain language of the statute, noting that 38 U.S.C. § 1110 provides for compensation for “a disability resulting from personal injury suffered or disease contracted in line of duty,” but “does not expressly define what constitutes a ‘disability.’” The Court noted that the parties did not dispute that “‘disability’ refers to a functional impairment, rather than the underlying cause of the impairment.” And the Court found that VA’s rating schedule reflected this meaning, noting that the percentages in the rating schedule represent “the average impairment in earning capacity” (citing 38 C.F.R. § 4.1), and that “[t]he basis of disability evaluations is the ability of the body as a wholeto function under the ordinary conditions of daily life including employment” (38 C.F.R. § 4.10).

 The Court also considered Congressional intent in drafting VA benefits statutes, finding that “the legislative history of veterans compensation highlights Congress’s consistent intent that there should be a distinction between a disability and its cause” – adding that Congress defined “disability” for Ch. 17 purposes, but not for compensation benefits.  

 The Court thus held that (1) “‘disability’ in § 1110 refers to the functional impairment of earning capacity, not the underlying cause of said disability”; and (2) “pain is an impairment because it diminishes the body’s ability to function, and that pain need not be diagnosed as connected to a current underlying condition to function as an impairment.”

 To support this second part of its holding, the Federal Circuit noted several references to “pain” throughout VA’s rating schedule, citing §§ 4.10, 4.40, 4.45, 4.56, 4.66, 4.67. The Court added that “a physician’s failure to provide a diagnosis for the immediate cause of a veteran’s pain does not indicate that the pain cannot be a functional impairment that affects a veteran’s earning capacity.” To clarify its holding, the Court stated: “We do not hold that a veteran could demonstrate service connection simply by asserting subjective pain—to establish a disability the veteran’s pain must amount to a functional impairment,” adding that “[t]o establish the presence of a disability, a veteran will need to show that her pain reaches the level of a functional impairment of earning capacity.” The Court remanded this matter to the CAVC with instructions to remand to the Board to make specific factual findings in the first instance.

 FULL DECISION

Bly: EAJA, timeliness

Bly v. Shulkin883 F.3d 1374 (Mar. 2, 2018)

HELD: Unless a Court order specifically prohibits an appeal, an order granting the parties’ motion for remand will become final and “‘not appealable’ 60 days after the entry of the remand order.”

SUMMARY: The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) requires an application for attorney fees to be filed “within 30 days of final judgment in the action.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(B). Mr. Bly’s attorney filed his EAJA application with the CAVC 31 days after the Court issued its order granting the parties’ joint motion for remand. The Court, relying on three of its own rules of practice and procedure, denied the application because it was one day late. These rules state that (1) an EAJA application must be made “not later than 30 days after the Court’s judgment becomes final”; (2) when the Court remands a case on the parties’ consent, judgment is effective the date of the Court order when that order states that it constitutes the mandate of the Court; (3) mandate is when the Court’s judgment becomes final; and (4) mandate is generally 60 days after judgment, unless it is “part of an order on consent … remanding a case” or “the Court directs otherwise.” See Rules 39(a), 36(b)(1)(B)(i), 41(a) and (b). 

The Federal Circuit reversed the CAVC’s decision based on the EAJA’s definition of “final judgment” as a “judgment that is final and not appealable, and includes an order of settlement.” Mr. Bly argued that his EAJA application was timely because the “Court’s judgment was not yet ‘final and not appealable’ until 60 days after the date of the remand order.

The Federal Circuit noted that the courts of appeals have taken two different approaches to the issue of finality for EAJA purposes. Under the “uniform” approach, the time to file an EAJA application “would run from the expiration of the time for appeal, without consideration of whether the particular final judgment would have or could have been appealed.” The “functional” approach, on the other hand, requires a “case by case exploration of whether an appeal could have been taken by either party.” The Federal Circuit had previously “adopted the uniform rule for voluntary dismissals, ‘at least where the order of dismissal does not specifically prohibit appeal’” – and saw no reason to depart from that approach in the context of “consent judgments,” as in this case. The Court thus held that the “consent judgment here became ‘not appealable’ 60 days after the entry of the remand order” – and, therefore, Mr. Bly’s EAJA application was timely. 

The Secretary had also argued that the CAVC order granting the parties’ joint motion for remand was “an order of settlement” and, therefore, a final judgment under the EAJA. The Federal Circuit rejected this argument because the order granted the motion to remand did not resolve the underlying service-connection dispute. The appeal would go back to the Board – and may even return to the Court – so the Federal Circuit did not this fit within the plain meaning of “settlement.” The Federal Circuit remanded this matter to the CAVC to consider the merits of the EAJA application. 

FULL DECISION

Golden: GAF scores, rating psychiatric conditions

Golden, Jr. v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 221 (Feb. 23, 2018)

HELD: “Given that the DSM-5 abandoned the GAF scale and that VA has formally adopted the DSM-5, the Court holds that the Board errs when it uses GAF scores to assign a psychiatric rating in cases where the DSM-5 applies.” 

SUMMARY: Veteran is service connected for PTSD, rated 70%. He appealed for a higher rating – and his appeal was certified to the Board in June 2015. The Board denied a higher rating based on the veteran’s GAF scores –even though it acknowledged that the DSM-5 applied to claims certified to the Board after August 4, 2014, and that this edition of the DSM had eliminated the use of GAF scores. 

The Court recognized that VA is required to evaluate a disability “in relation to its history,” per 38 C.F.R. § 4.1, and to consider all medical and lay evidence of record –which may include GAF scores.The Court emphasized that VA’s ”rating analysis for psychiatric disorders has always been ‘symptom driven,’ meaning that ‘symptom[s] should be the fact finder’s primary focus” when assigning a rating.” The Court thus clarified: “to the extent that the Board may have been tempted to use numerical GAF scores as a shortcut for gauging psychiatric impairment, such use would be error.” 

FULL DECISION

Turner: 38 C.F.R. § 3.156(b), "constructively" received VA medical records

Turner v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 207 (Feb. 8, 2018)

HELD: Under38 C.F.R. §3.156(b), if new and material evidence (which could include VA treatment records)  is “received” during the one-year appeal period following a regional office (RO) decision, the RO is required to consider that evidence as having been submitted with the original claim and proceed accordingly.” VA treatment records can be “constructively” received, which requires VA adjudicators to “have sufficient knowledge, within the one-year appeal period following an RO decision, that the records exist, although they need not know the contents of such records.” Until the RO reconsiders the claim with the newly received (or constructively received) evidence, “the denied claim remains pending.”

FULL DECISION

Harvey: Attorney serving as expert witness

Harvey v. Shulkindocket no. 16-1515 (Feb. 7, 2018)

HELD: Whether an attorney’s submission should be treated as a medical opinion depends on several factors, including (1) the text of the submission, (2) the identification of the author as attorney or medical professional, (3) the indicators of legal advocacy/argument in the submission, and (4) the presence of a medical opinion with supporting rationale. 

SUMMARY: Mr. Harvey appealed the denial of service connection for sleep apnea. At the agency level, he was represented by David Anaise, a licensed medical doctor, attorney, and accredited VA representative. In his “appeal brief” to the RO, he stated that the veteran’s sleep apnea was more likely related to his service-connected PTSD on a secondary basis, and cited supporting medical literature. The Board denied service connection, relying on a negative C&P opinion and stating that “[t]here are no contrary opinions of record.” 

On appeal to the Court, Mr. Harvey argued that the denial was in error because the Board failed to address the favorable medical opinion “submitted by his attorney-physician representative.” The Court noted that VA law does not establish requirements for determining “whether a specific submission constitutes a medical opinion” and declined to “prescribe absolute requirements” for such determinations. The Court held that these determinations are “to be undertaken individually,” and that the Board may “be obligated to assess whether that submission is a medical opinion and consider it in adjudicating a claim.” 

The Court outlined several factors that should be considered in making this assessment, including whether the author of the submission identified himself/herself as a medical professional, whether the content of the submission indicated that it was legal argument, and whether the content of the submission indicated that it was a medical opinion. Because Mr. Anaise did not identify himself as acting in the capacity of a medical professional, and because the submission contained indications of legal argument and no indication that it was a medical opinion (i.e., there was no language, such as “in my medical opinion”), the Court determined that the Board did not err by failing to treat this submission as a medical opinion. 

The Court also ordered oral argument for the parties to address the ethical issue of an attorney representative serving as an expert witness in a case. Because the Court held that Mr. Anaise’s “brief” was not a medical opinion, it found there was no violation of Rule 3.7 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

Finally, the Court addressed the appellant’s argument that “the Board improperly relied on its own medical judgment to determine that the article reflected a correlative rather than a causal relationship between PTSD and sleep apnea.” The Court discussed the medical treatise evidence that had been submitted and stated that it is within the Board’s purview to interpret such treatise’s meaning and assess its probative value. The Court found that the Board correctly applied the legal standard required for assessing service connection on a secondary basis. The Court explained that that “correlation” between a service-connected condition and a secondary condition is not sufficient to establish secondary service connection; “a causation or aggravation relationship is required.” 

FULL DECISION

George: 38 C.F.R. § 3.156(c) & CUE

George v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 199 (Feb. 5, 2018)

HELD: Upon receiving new service records, VA must “reconsider” a claimant’s original claim even if service connection has already been granted with a later effective date. However, “given the imprecise definition of ‘reconsider’ under § 3.156(c)(1),” the Court in this case did not find CUE in the Board’s determination that a proper reconsideration occurred. 

SUMMARY: In 1998, the RO denied Mr. George’s claim for service connection for PTSD because there was no confirmed PTSD diagnosis and no in-service stressor. In 2003, the veteran requested reopening. VA obtained service records, confirming the in-service stressor, and granted service connection, effective 2003. Mr. George appealed, arguing that 1998 denial should be reconsidered under 38 C.F.R. § 3.156(c). 

In 2012, on appeal to the CAVC, the parties agreed to remand for Board to consider the applicability of § 3.156(c). The Board subsequently remands for a retrospective medical opinion to determine when Mr. George’s PTSD first manifested. The C&P examiner opined that the condition first manifested in 2003, based on the 2003 C&P examiner’s report. 

In 2014, the Board denies entitlement to an earlier effective date, noting that the grant could go back to 1997, but that the first evidence of a PTSD diagnosis was not until 2003. The veteran did not appeal this decision

In 2015, Mr. George filed a motion to revise the 2014 decision on the basis of clear and unmistakable error (CUE), arguing that the Board misapplied § 3.156(c). The Board determined that there was no CUE in the 2014 decision because the medical evidence did not support a PTSD diagnosis prior to 2003. 

On appeal to the CAVC, the veteran argued that the Board erred in determining that the 2014 decision was not CUE because the Board did not “reconsider” his claim under § 3.156(c)(1), but instead only reviewed the proper effective date under § 3.156(c)(3). He argued that the finality of the original 1997 decision “‘had been undone’ by receipt of new service treatment records, and because the RO never engaged in a full readjudication, the Board erred when it found no CUE.” 

At the very beginning of its opinion, the Court emphasized that “our resolution of the claimed error here under § 3.156(c) is largely dictated by the fact that we consider that matter through the prism of CUE.” (Advocacy note: This point must be emphasized. Had the veteran directly appealed the effective date assigned in the 2003 decision, this issue would not have been subjected to the heightened CUE standard.)

The CAVC discussed § 3.156(c) and found that “upon receiving official service department records in 2007, VA had a duty to ‘reconsider’ the appellant’s 1997 claim for service connection for PTSD, despite the fact that service connection for PTSD was granted in 2007 with an effective date of 2003.” The Court noted that “what would satisfy the reconsideration required is a gray area under existing law,” and noted that “§ 3.156(c) is about more than effective dates; it’s also about development of the claim in at least some respect.” Nevertheless, the Court determined that the Board “applied the correct legal principles under § 3.156(c) when it reviewed the 2014 decision.” 

Turning to the question of whether the 2015 Board properly determined that there was no CUE in the 2014 decision, the Court stated: “given the imprecise definition of ‘reconsider’ under § 3.156(c)(1), the Board’s determination that a proper reconsideration occurred based on the gathering of new evidence and the reweighing of old evidence, is not arbitrary and capricious under the deferential CUE standard.” 

In a footnote, the Court acknowledged the appellant’s argument that had the Board conducted a “‘full readjudication’ in 2014, his lay statements may have triggered VA’s duty to assist.” The Court stated that the duty-to-assist argument could have been raised on direct appeal, but noted that it is well established that a duty-to-assist violation cannot be CUE. 

FULL DECISION

Kisor: Petition for panel, en banc rehearing denied

Kisor v. Shulkin880 F.3d 1378 (Jan. 31, 2018) (per curiam order)

SUMMARY: The majority of the en banc Court denied the petition for rehearing. However, three judges dissented on the basis that the original panel decision was predicated on Auer deference, “despite the Supreme Court’s repeated reminder that statutes concerning veterans are to be construed liberally in favor of the veteran.” 

FULL DECISION 

Rosinski: Standing to Challenge VA Policy Re: Access to Preliminary Decisions

Rosinski v. Shulkin29 Vet.App. 183 (Jan. 26, 2018) (per curiam order)

HELD: Attorney lacks standing to challenge VA policy limiting access to preliminary VA rating decisions to VSOs.

SUMMARY: VA has a policy that allows VSOs access to preliminary rating decisions before they are promulgated, which enables VSOs to identify any clear errors before the decisions are issued. VA limits this access to VSOs and does not provide attorneys who represent veterans with access to these preliminary decisions. An attorney challenged this policy as impeding his ability to provide competent representation, violating his rights as an accredited representative, and denying his clients fair process. 

The Court held that the attorney lacked standing to challenge this policy because he did not establish that he suffered an injury (economic harm) as a result of the policy or demonstrate that the policy preventing him from representing his clients. Because the attorney lacked standing and did not show that he had asserted “a claim typical of a class,” the Court further denied the attorney’s motion for aggregate action. 

In a footnote, the Court stated that it did not hold that “attorneyscategorically lack standing to challenge VA’s policy, only that Mr. Rosinski has not demonstrated that he has standing on the facts of this case.” 

In a concurring opinion, Chief Judge Davis wrote that the “increased involvement of attorneys in the adjudication process . . . suggests that the disparate treatment of VSO representatives and attorneys . . . may no longer be rationally justified.” 

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

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

Ebanks: Unreasonable delay; petition mooted

Ebanks v. Shulkin877 F.3d 1037 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 14, 2017)

HELD: Petition for writ of mandamus based on unreasonable delay in scheduling a Board hearing is mooted by the actual scheduling of the hearing – and does not fall within the exception to mootness if the claimant does not have a “reasonable expectation” that he will be subjected to the same action again. 

SUMMARY: Elon Ebanks appealed an RO denial of an increased rating and requested a Board hearing in December 2014. Nearly two years later, in September 2016, he petitioned the Veterans Court for a writ of mandamus to compel the Board to schedule the hearing. The Court denied the petition, and Mr. Ebanks appealed that decision to the Federal Circuit. 

While the appeal was pending, the Board held the requested hearing in October 2017 – nearly three years after his request. Because the hearing was held, the government claimed that the appeal was moot. Mr. Ebanks argued that the appeal was not moot because it falls under the exception for mootness for cases that are “capable of repetition yet evading review.” 

This exception applies when “(1) ‘the challenged action [is] in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to the cessation or expiration,’ and (2) ‘there [is] a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party [will] be subject to the same action again.” Mr. Ebanks asserted that even if he prevailed at the Board, the usual relief was to remand to the RO, which would result in further adjudication. He expected that he would likely ask for a new hearing and would again be subjected to unreasonable delay. The government disputed that argument. 

The Federal Circuit noted that any future hearing on remand would be subject to “expedited treatment under 38 U.S.C. § 7112.” The government also pointed out that Congress recently overhauled the appeals process and argued that any future appeal may be subject to this new regime. The Court found that Mr. Ebanks “has not established that future Board proceedings will be subject to the same delays as is presently the case” and thus “has not shown a sufficiently reasonable expectation that he will again be subjected to the same action.” 

The Court stated that even if the case were not moot, granting Mr. Ebanks’ petition “may result in no more than line-jumping without resolving the underlying problem of overall delay.” The Court added that the issue of delay “seems best addressed in the class-action context,” noting that it had “recently approved the use of collective actions in the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims,” citing Monk v. Shulkin, 855 F.3d 1312, 1318-22 (Fed. Cir. 2017). 

FULL DECISION