Justia Public Benefits Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
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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

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McCord injured his back while serving in the Army and was discharged with a 20% disability rating. Because his rating was below 30% and he served for less than 20 years, McCord received severance pay instead of ongoing military retirement pay and received monthly VA benefits. The Army Board for Correction of Military Records later corrected his record to reflect a 30% disability rating and entitlement to medical retirement pay, rather than severance pay. McCord later challenged the government’s calculation of his entitlement to military retirement back pay and its claimed right to recover the severance pay and requested damages for medical expenses that he incurred because he was not afforded TRICARE coverage before the correction. The Claims Court rejected McCord’s approach to back pay calculation as “double-dipping,” denied relief regarding the recoupment of severance pay “as not ripe,” and held that McCord failed to exhaust administrative procedures for securing TRICARE benefits. The Federal Circuit affirmed except as to the out-of-pocket medical expenses. The court cited 10 U.S.C. 1201, 1203, 1212(d)(a), and 2774, as defining entitlement to retirement pay or severance pay, VA benefits, and the circumstances for recoupment of severance pay. A veteran receiving VA benefits may face a disadvantage if he also secures an award of military retirement pay because he would not be entitled to severance pay but military retirement pay includes TRICARE coverage. View "McCord v. United States" on Justia Law

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A 1941 Executive Order, ordered into the service of the U.S. armed forces all of the organized military forces of the Philippines, a U.S. territory. Various Filipino military organizations and more than 100,000 members of the Philippine Commonwealth Army served the U.S. during World War II. After the war, Congress passed Surplus Appropriation Rescission Acts, 38 U.S.C. 107, providing that service in these Filipino military organizations “shall not be deemed to have been active military, naval, or air service.” Filipino veterans were not eligible for the same benefits as U.S. veterans. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, 123 Stat. 115, 200–02, established a $198 million fund to provide one-time payments to Filipino veterans: $15,000 for U.S. citizens and $9,000 for non-citizens. The statute required Filipino veterans to apply for this payment within one year of the statute’s enactment. The VA required that the relevant service department verify the veteran’s service. The VA treats the service department’s decision as conclusive, regardless of other evidence documenting service. The VA denied Cruz’s application because the Army certified that Cruz did not have service as a member of the Philippine Commonwealth Army, including recognized guerillas, as “he was not listed in the Reconstructed Guerilla Roster” The Federal Circuit reversed in part. The VA can generally rely on the service department’s determination in deciding eligibility for payment but, in this context, must give the veteran a meaningful opportunity to challenge his service record through the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. View "Dela Cruz v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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While serving on a Navy aircraft carrier in 1969, Francway was hit by wind: “[t]he resulting fall caused him to injure his back.” He “was placed on bedrest for a week and assigned to light duty for three months.” In 2003, Francway filed a VA claim for service connection for his back disability. In 2003-2011, Francway was examined multiple times by an orthopedist and had his medical records separately reviewed by the orthopedist and an internist. They concluded that Francway’s current back disability was not likely connected to his 1969 injury. After multiple appeals and remands, Francway submitted new evidence from his longtime friend, attesting to Francway’s history of back disability. The Board again remanded, with instructions that Francway’s “claims file should be reviewed by an appropriate medical specialist” and that the examiner should reconcile any opinion with the statements from Francway's "buddy statement.” Francway was again examined by the orthopedist, who concluded that Francway’s symptoms were unlikely to be related to his injury but did not address the “buddy statement.” The internist reviewed Francway’s file and the “buddy statement,” and reached a similar conclusion. The Board concluded that there was insufficient evidence of a nexus between Francway’s 1969 injury and his current disability and that the VA had complied with the remand orders. The Veterans Court concluded that Francway had not preserved his claim that the internist who reviewed the “buddy statement” was not an “appropriate medical specialist” under the remand order. Francway had not challenged the examiner’s qualifications before the Board. The Federal Circuit affirmed, noting that the Board and Veterans Court properly apply a presumption of competency in reviewing the opinions of VA medical examiners. View "Francway v. Wilkie" on Justia Law