Justia Public Benefits Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Military Law
by
Doyon served in the Navy, 1966-1968; he received several medals and commendations. In 1967, Doyon witnessed the immediate aftermath of an explosion and fire that resulted in more than 130 deaths. When four of his friends went AWOL. Doyon was allegedly harassed and threatened by his shipmates. In 1968, Doyon went AWOL for two days. Upon his return, Doyon was referred to the sick bay. He was sedated with Thorazine, and later was diagnosed with “passive-aggressive personality disorder.” Doyon later witnessed a fatal plane crash, including the dismemberment of a fellow Airman, while he was standing duty at a video recording console. Doyon later spent hours replaying video recordings of the crash for Report Personnel. In 1968, Doyon was discharged. Doyon’s DD-214 form characterized his discharge as “Honorable,” and the “Reason and Authority” field contained a code indicating unsuitability due to a personality disorder. Doyon was not eligible to receive a military disability retirement.In 2013, Doyon unsuccessfully petitioned the Board for the Correction of Naval Records to correct his service records to state that he was discharged for service-connected PTSD, to be eligible for disability retirement payment under 10 U.S.C. 1201. The Claims Court upheld the denial. The Federal Circuit vacated. Doyon challenges the correctness of the narrative reason for his discharge, as stated in his military records. Both 10 U.S.C. 1552(h) and a Department of Defense memorandum (Kurta Memo) require “liberal consideration” for such correction requests. View "Doyon v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Approximately 30 years after Arellano’s honorable discharge from the Navy, a VA regional office granted Arellano service-connected disability benefits for his psychiatric disorders. Applying the default rule in 38 U.S.C. 5110(a)(1), the VA assigned an effective date of June 3, 2011—the day that it received Arellano's claim—to the award. Arellano argued that the effective date should be governed by an exception in section 5110(b)(1), which makes the effective date the day following the date of the veteran’s discharge or release if the application “is received within one year from such date of discharge or release.” Alleging that he had been too ill to know that he could apply for benefits, Arellano maintained that this exception’s one-year grace period should be equitably tolled to make his award effective the day after his 1981 discharge.The Board of Veterans’ Appeals, Veterans Court, Federal Circuit, and Supreme Court disagreed. Section 5110(b)(1) is not subject to equitable tolling. Equitably tolling one of the limited exceptions would depart from the terms that Congress “specifically provided.” The exceptions do not operate simply as time constraints, but also as substantive limitations on the amount of recovery due. Congress has already considered equitable concerns and limited the relief available, aware of the possibility that disability could delay an application for benefits. View "Arellano v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
Cooper served on active duty in the Marine Corps from March-September 1972 and from February-April 1973. In 2008, the VA granted Cooper entitlement to a non-service-connected (NSC) pension. In 2014, the VA notified Cooper that it had adjusted his income from December 2008-2010 based on his receipt of unemployment compensation from the state of Wisconsin, which resulted in an overpayment of $13,094.The Board of Veterans’ Appeals and Veterans Court found that unemployment compensation payments are not excluded from a veteran’s annual income under an exception for “donations from public or private relief or welfare organizations,” 38 U.S.C. 503(a)(1). The Federal Circuit affirmed NSC pensions are need-based, so the maximum annual rate of pension is “reduced by the amount of the veteran’s annual income.” In general, a veteran’s “annual income” includes “all payments of any kind or from any source,” 38 U.S.C. 1503(a). View "Cooper v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
Van Dermark served in the Navy from 1963 until his 1976 honorable discharge. The VA found Van Dermark to be totally and permanently disabled due to service-connected injuries. Van Dermark received treatment in Thailand (where he lived) at non-VA facilities, from physicians and others not affiliated with VA, in 2016 and in 2018, both times for cardiac conditions not related to his service-connected disability. For each of the two instances of treatment abroad, Van Dermark filed a claim with VA under 38 U.S.C 1728 and 1725 seeking VA payment—to him or his medical creditors—for the surgical or other heart-related treatment he received abroad.VA Community Care denied both claims. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals maintained the denials. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed. Section 1724(a) prohibits the VA from “furnish[ing] hospital . . . care or medical services” abroad, where the care or services are unrelated to the service-connected disability. The “furnishing” phrase encompasses the payment for a veteran’s hospital care or medical expenses abroad at issue here; sections 1728 and 1725 do not override that prohibition. View "Van Dermark v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
Mattox served in the Navy from 1967-1971, including on a vessel in the waters of Vietnam. In 2015, Mattox sought disability benefits with a service connection for PTSD. He submitted the diagnosis by a private doctor. A VA psychologist concluded that Mattox did not present “a diagnosis of PTSD according to the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria” but that Mattox suffered from moderate alcohol and cannabis use disorder, which explained his depression, anxiety, and irritability. Mattox had indicated that he used cannabis “about daily.” The Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the Veterans Court affirmed the denial of Mattox’s claim.The Federal Circuit affirmed. Mattox’s appeal to the Board was not subject to the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, 131 Stat. 1105 (AMA); Mattox was not prejudiced by the Board’s failure to provide him with a notice of its decision that met the requirements of 38 U.S.C. 5104(b), as amended by the AMA. The Board did not err in concluding that the benefit-of-the-doubt rule, 38 U.S.C. 5107(b), did not apply because, although a veteran is entitled to the benefit of the doubt “where the evidence is in approximate balance,” it found that, in Mattox’s case, “the preponderance of the evidence” was against his claim for service connection. View "Mattox v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
Hanser served in the Army from 1979-1999. In 2012, he was assigned 20% service-connected disability ratings, effective July 2011, for his left leg radiculopathy and his bilateral arm radiculopathy. In 2014 and 2015, lumbar and cervical spine examinations showed improvement in his conditions. in March 2016, the VA reduced his disability ratings to 0% for both his left leg and bilateral arm radiculopathy, effective June 2016. Hanser timely filed a notice of disagreement. Following examinations in October 2017, the VA confirmed the ratings reductions in December 2017.The Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the Veterans Court concluded that the procedural protections of 38 C.F.R. 3.344 did not apply to Hanser and affirmed. The Federal Circuit affirmed. Section 3.344(c) applies the procedures of sections 3.344(a) and (b) only to disability ratings that have continued at the same level for five years or more. Hanser’s ratings do not satisfy this condition. Section 3.344(c) guides the VA’s determinations as to whether procedures that make it more difficult to reduce a rating must be followed, and provides that such procedures apply when a rating has been in place, unchanged, for a long period, parenthetically defined as five years. View "Hanser v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
In 2011, Cranford, on active duty in the Army, was charged with possessing and using Spice, an unregulated intoxicant, in violation of a lawful general order. Captain Lease recommended that Cranford be tried by general court-martial and forwarded the charges. Cranford requested to be discharged in lieu of trial by court-martial, acknowledging that the Uniform Code of Military Justice authorized the imposition of a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge for the charge. Cranford admitted guilt and acknowledged that he would qualify for an “other than honorable” (OTH) discharge, potentially barring him from receiving benefits. Cranford received an OTH discharge. Cranford later requested VA benefits. The regional office denied that request, reasoning that Cranford’s discharge status barred him from receiving benefits. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals affirmed the denial, applying 38 C.F.R. 3.12(d)(1), to conclude that Cranford had been discharged under dishonorable conditions and was ineligible for benefits as a non-veteran under 38 U.S.C. 101(2).The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the Board mischaracterized his discharge as being “in lieu of a general court-martial,” instead of a summary court-martial and that section 3.12(d)(1) did not apply to him because he had accepted an OTH discharge, not an “undesirable discharge.” An OTH discharge accepted in lieu of a general court-martial is equivalent to an undesirable discharge—despite the military service departments’ shift in terminology. View "Cranford v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
Gudinas served in the Army, 1966-1968. In 2005, the VA determined that Gudinas suffered from service-connected PTSD and awarded him a 50 percent disability rating plus a 10 percent disability rating for service-connected tinnitus. In 2014, Gudinas filed an unsuccessful claim for service-connected sleep apnea. Gudinas timely filed a notice of disagreement. Gudinas sent a letter indicating that the claim was secondary to his service-connected PTSD, requested increased compensation for total disability based on individual unemployability (TDIU), and sought to increase his PTSD disability rating. The VA denied the TDIU claim but increased his PTSD disability rating to 100 percent, effective October 2015. Gudinas argued that 38 C.F.R. 3.156(b) entitled him to an effective date of May 2014, because his October 2015 submission constituted new and material evidence relating to his May 2014 claim.The Board of Veterans’ Appeals rejected that argument, noting that Gudinas’s May 2014 claim did “not mention a psychiatric disability” (PTSD), and that the claim contained no reference to an increase in the PTSD rating. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed. Even if Gudinas’s claim for sleep apnea were considered secondary to his PTSD claim, the two claims would not need to be treated as the same claim for purposes of determining their effective dates; the Board is not required to explicitly determine whether a submission constitutes “new and material evidence” where, as here, the conditions underlying the two claims have no apparent connection. View "Gudinas v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
Rhone served in the military 1950-1953 and 1959-1988. In 1986, Rhone and JoAnne, divorced; the Florida Divorce Decree stated that JoAnne would receive 40% of Rhone’s military retirement benefits. In 1988, Rhone left military service due to disability. To receive disability compensation, Rhone waived part of his military retirement pay (38 U.S.C. 5305). The state court denied Rhone’s motion to modify the Divorce Decree, stating that the payment of retirement benefits constituted alimony, not a property division. The state court issued a Continuing Writ of Garnishment directing the VA to withhold that payment from Rhone’s retirement pay. The VA determined that the order obliged the VA to make payments from Rhone’s disability compensation. After Rhone attempted to avoid garnishment by renouncing benefits, in 2002 the VA determined that Rhone's compensation benefits were not subject to garnishment and had been erroneously withheld. Rhone was reimbursed for $27,664. In 2005, the VA determined that it must comply with the alimony award and resumed garnishing Rhone’s disability compensation.The Board of Veterans’ Appeals issued a 2020 decision, finding the 1991 order “valid on its face” and providing for “permanent periodic alimony” so that the VA legally garnished Rhone’s disability compensation under 42 U.S.C. 659(a); (h)(1)(A)(ii)(V). The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed, finding no due process violation. The statutes authorize the VA to withhold a portion of a veteran’s VA disability payment for alimony or child support pursuant to legal process when a veteran has waived a portion of military retirement pay to receive VA benefits. The VA lacks jurisdiction to decide questions associated with a state garnishment order. View "Rhone v. McDonough" on Justia Law

by
The Department of Veterans Affairs rating schedule standardizes the evaluation of how severely diseases and injuries resulting from military service impair veterans’ earning capacity, 38 C.F.R. 4.1. The rating schedule is divided into diagnostic codes that provide disability ratings for various symptoms or conditions. The Federal Circuit, pursuant to 38 U.S.C. 502, reviewed the VA’s interpretation of two diagnostic codes: DCs 5055 and 5257: the “Knee Replacement Manual Provision” and the “Knee Joint Stability Manual Provision.” The court concluded that DC 5055 is ambiguous as to whether it includes partial knee replacements and, that under controlling Supreme Court precedent, the Secretary’s interpretation is not entitled to deference. A “Guidance” promulgated to clarify that the Provision applied only to total joint replacement did not go through the notice-and-comment procedure followed when the original Diagnostic Code was enacted. The court, therefore, applied the “pro-veteran” canon of construction. The court dismissed the challenge to the Knee Joint Stability Manual Provision as moot because the Secretary rescinded the Manual provision. View "Nova v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law