Justia Public Benefits Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
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Carr served Air Force active duty, 1976-1980, earning 45 months of education benefits under Chapter 34 (Vietnam-era GI Bill), Carr used 41 months and 11 days of those benefits for his own education before the entire Chapter 34 program expired. After September 11, 2001, Carr returned to active duty and would have been eligible for 36 additional months of benefits under Chapter 33 (Post-9/11 GI Bill), but 38 U.S.C. 3695 limited him to a cumulative total of 48 months. Carr transferred those benefits to his daughter, 38 U.S.C. 3319, who used paid for two semesters. Due to a VA error, she initially did not receive payments to cover the final days of the Fall 2010 semester and was informed, incorrectly, that she had exhausted her benefits. Later, it was discovered that she had 19 days of benefits remaining; one day was applied to the Fall 2013 semester. Chapter 33 permits extensions of education benefits “in a roundabout way” to the end of the semester, 38 C.F.R. 21.9635(o)(1). The regional office, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and the Veterans Court rejected Carr's Chapter 33 claim. The Federal Circuit reversed and remanded for consideration of the unaddressed regulatory challenge. . The Veterans Court resolved the appeal through statutory interpretation and did not address the transferred benefits regulation; 38 U.S.C. 3695(a)’s aggregate multi-program benefits cap does not preclude end-of-term extensions of benefits authorized under individual benefits programs. View "Carr v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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In 2012, Lozano gave birth to a baby. While still hospitalized, Lozano received a tetanus-diphtheria-acellular-pertussis (Tdap) vaccination. Two weeks later, Lozano reported a low-grade fever, body aches, and breast tenderness. Lozano’s symptoms persisted through visits to her physician and the emergency room. She developed abdominal pain, difficulty urinating, weakness, loss of balance, vision changes, neck pain, headache, vomiting, and dizziness. A brain MRI suggested that Lozano possibly had multiple sclerosis (MS), acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), or vasculitis. Lozano’s symptoms improved with steroid treatment, following a working diagnosis of MS. After several months, a repeat MRI “showed dramatic improvement, suggesting that ADEM was a more likely etiology, which was confirmed through later serological findings.” Lozano’s doctors opine that ADEM is the likely explanation for her symptoms. Lozano sought compensation under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, 42 U.S.C. 300aa. Lozano’s expert opined that Lozano’s ADEM was the result of her receipt of the Tdap vaccine. The special master granted Lozano’s petition, finding that her expert’s testimony and the supporting medical literature demonstrated that the Tdap vaccine can cause autoimmune diseases such as ADEM and that Lozano offered preponderant evidence of a proximate temporal relationship between the vaccine and her injury. The Claims Court and Federal Circuit upheld the award of a lump-sum payment of $1,199,216.86, finding that the decision was neither an abuse of discretion nor contrary to law and that the fact-findings were neither arbitrary nor capricious. View "Lozano v. Secretary of Health and Human Services" on Justia Law

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Attorney Ravin represented veteran Cook on a claim for past-due disability benefits. Their agreement provided for a contingent fee and contemplated that VA would withhold the fee from any past-due benefits awarded and pay that amount directly to Ravin under 38 U.S.C. 5904(d)(3). Within days of executing that agreement, Ravin sent a copy to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, where it was date-stamped on December 11, 2009. No copy of the agreement was submitted to the Regional Office (RO) “within 30 days of the date of execution,” as required by 38 C.F.R. 14.636(h)(4). The RO awarded Cook past-due benefits in April 2010. On April 13, 2010, the RO’s Attorney Fee Coordinator searched for any attorney fee agreement and determined that “no attorney fee decision is required” and “[a]ll retroactive benefits may be paid directly to the veteran.” The RO paid the past-due benefits to Cook. On April 27, 2010, Ravin mailed a copy of Cook’s direct-pay fee agreement to the RO. The RO informed Ravin that it had not withheld his attorney’s fees because the agreement was “not timely filed.” The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s denial of Ravin’s claim. Section 5904(d)(3) does not mandate withholding and direct payment; 38 C.F.R. 14.636(h)(4)'s submission requirement is valid. Ravin’s fees have not been forfeited; he may use all available remedies to obtain them from Cook, per their agreement. View "Ravin v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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In 2011, K.G., age 48, received an influenza vaccination in advance of knee replacement surgery. Over the next several months, she experienced increasingly severe nerve pain in her hands, arms, feet, and legs; she succumbed to alcoholism, spent months in the hospital, and developed amnesia. In 2014, an Iowa state court declared K.G. incapable of caring for herself and, against K.G.’s will, appointed K.G.’s sister as her guardian. K.G. regained her mental faculties by May 2016. She then retained an attorney who filed her claim under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, 42 U.S.C. 300aa-1. A Special Master held that equitable tolling was not available during the period that K.G.’s sister acted as K.G.’s guardian and dismissed K.G.’s claim as not timely filed within the three-year statute of limitations. The Federal Circuit vacated. Equitable tolling is available in Vaccine Act cases and the appointment of a legal guardian is only one factor a court should consider when deciding whether equitable tolling is appropriate in a particular case. K.G. was not required to argue the legally irrelevant question of whether she personally was diligent while she was mentally competent and she preserved her argument that her legal representative exercised reasonable diligence under the circumstances. The Special Master erred in adopting a per se rule. View "K.G. v. Secretary of Health and Human Services" on Justia Law

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Under the GI Bill, the VA provides monetary benefits to veterans enrolled in “approved” “course[s] of education,” 38 U.S.C. 3483. Approval must be provided by the state approving agency (SAA) for the state where the educational institution is located. For online courses, the educational institution must obtain approval from the SAA where the institution’s “main campus” is located. The VA may discontinue educational assistance, after following certain procedures, if this requirement is not met. Ashford is a for-profit educational institution that provides online courses to veterans and others. In November 2017, the VA sent a Cure Letter to Ashford stating that Ashford’s online courses were not approved by the correct SAA, expressing its “inten[t] to suspend payment of educational assistance and suspend approval of new enrollments and re-enrollments [for Ashford’s online programs] in 60 days unless corrective action is taken.” The Letter noted the availability of a hearing before the Committee on Educational Allowances. Ashford sought review, contending that the Cure Letter “announces” new “rules” and that 38 U.S.C. 502 provided the court with jurisdiction to review those alleged rules. The Federal Circuit dismissed the petition, finding that the Cure Letter is not rulemaking or any other reviewable action; it is also not a final agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act. View "Ashford University, LLC v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

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Strand served in the Navy for roughly 19-1/2 years until he was discharged under other than honorable conditions for firing a gun at his estranged wife. Strand was convicted in state court of three felonies. After his release from prison, Strand sought “corrections” to his service records, including a six-month credit so that he would have 20 years of service and be eligible for military retirement benefits. The Board for Correction of Naval Records recommended granting Strand’s request, citing his “overall record … of satisfactory service [including receiving numerous medals,].” The Secretary of the Navy rejected the Board’s recommendation, citing the seriousness of Strand’s convictions, the Navy’s core values, its practice in similar cases, and Strand’s supposed “long-standing history" of domestic violence issues. On remand, the Secretary also noted two early “counseling/warning” entries on Strand’s record and that Strand had already received “appropriate relief” in upgrading his service characterization to “General Under Honorable Conditions.” The Claims Court found the denial arbitrary. The Federal Circuit reinstated the denial. The Secretary reviewed the same record as the Board and drew a different, but supported, conclusion. Where a military officer has not unduly influenced the decision, a service secretary may reject the recommendation of a records correction board, even if supported by the record, if the rejection is not arbitrary or capricious, unsupported by substantial evidence, or otherwise contrary to the law. View "Strand v. United States" on Justia Law

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O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran whose service-connected disabilities make him eligible to receive compensation for himself and for certain “dependents,” 38 U.S.C. 1115. Section 1115 does not define “dependents,” but lists specific allotments for veterans with “a spouse but no child,” “a spouse and one or more children,” “no spouse but one or more children,” and “a parent dependent upon such veteran for support.” Under title 38, a “child” is an unmarried person who meets certain age restrictions “and who is a legitimate child, a legally adopted child, a stepchild who is a member of a veteran’s household or was a member at the time of the veteran’s death, or an illegitimate child [in certain circumstances].” O’Brien took legal guardianship of D.B., his stepdaughter’s minor son, then requested dependency compensation. He and his late wife were D.B.’s caretakers since D.B.’s mother was in a nursing home and his father was absent. The VA denied compensation for D.B., indicating that O’Brien could reopen his claim with proof of D.B.’s adoption. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals, Veterans Court, and Federal Circuit upheld the denial as a matter of first impression. Despite not expressly defining “dependents,” Congress unambiguously limited that term to “spouses, children, and dependent parents” by specifying the amount payable for each. View "O'Brien v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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In 2010 San Diego Sherriff’s Deputy Collier died following an accident while on duty. Collier owned a house together with his fiance, Li, who was also designated as Collier’s beneficiary for his retirement benefits and as a dependent for purposes of workers’ compensation. The two were to have been married three months after the date of Collier’s death; Collier had repeatedly stated, including on a video, that he had made arrangements for Li to be taken care of in the event of his death. Stamp, Collier’s former girlfriend, was named as the beneficiary of his life insurance. Stamp and Li agreed to split the proceeds; Li received $560,920 and Stamp received $25,000. The Bureau of Justice Assistance denied Li’s claim for benefits under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act, 34 U.S.C. 10281, because Li was not the designated beneficiary on Collier’s life insurance policy. The Federal Circuit affirmed. Rejecting Li’s argument that the Bureau should have considered the “totality of the circumstances,” the court stated that Li was not the designated life insurance beneficiary. California law requires strict compliance with the requirement of a policy to change the beneficiary; Collier’s policy required a written designation. There was no written designation and none of the exceptions apply. View "Li v. Department of Justice" on Justia Law

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The Kreizenbecks sought compensation under the National Vaccine Injury Act, 42 U.S.C. 300aa-1–34, alleging that vaccinations administered to their son aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder and caused him to suffer immune system dysfunction and other medical problems. They submitted 1,500 pages of medical records, medical literature, Mrs. Kreizenbeck's affidavit, and reports from three medical experts. The government submitted reports from three experts. The Special Master determined that “a ruling on the papers was preferable to a hearing,” expressed “serious misgivings about the claims’ substantive validity,” and explained that if the parties proceeded to a hearing, he was unlikely to compensate the Kreizenbecks for costs. The Kreizenbecks chose to forgo a hearing but objected to a ruling on the record. The Master allowed the parties to submit final briefs, then determined that nothing in the record and expert reports suggested that the outcome would be different after a hearing. He found the government’s mitochondrial expert “reliable and persuasive,” the Kreizenbecks’ expert reports “conclusory or unsubstantiated” and Mrs. Kreizenbeck’s affidavit uncorroborated and inconsistent with the medical records. The Kreizenbecks did not dispute the substance of the claim denial but challenged the dismissal of their petition on the written record. The Claims Court affirmed, finding that the Master provided ample opportunity to support the claims with written material. The Federal Circuit affirmed, noting the Master’s broad discretion to rule on the record and rejecting a due process argument based on evaluating the credibility of the experts and Mrs. Kreizenbeck without live testimony or cross-examination. View "Kreizenbbeck v. Secretary of Health and Human Services" on Justia Law

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Following a 2019 Federal Circuit decision and enactment of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 133 Stat. 966, the petitioners, who served on open sea ships off the Vietnamese shore during the Vietnam War believed that they may be entitled to a presumption of service connection for diseases covered by 38 U.S.C. 1116. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs stayed pending disability compensation claims until January 1, 2020. Petitioners assert that many Blue Water Veterans are dying and filed a petition for expedited review under 38 U.S.C. 502 challenging the Secretary’s authority to stay pending disability compensation claims. The Federal Circuit denied the petition. The court concluded that it had jurisdiction 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(1)(D) because the Secretary’s memorandum amounts to an “interpretation[] of general applicability formulated and adopted by the agency.” The Act unambiguously authorizes the Secretary to stay disability compensation claims described in section 2(c)(3)(B) of the Act “until the date on which the Secretary commences the implementation of [] section 1116A,” 133 Stat. at 968. View "Procopio v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law