Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Different View

Lets step back from things for a moment and take a deep breath.

In reviewing the announcement of the proposed changes to the VA's Manual that hit the presses the other day, we need to make sure we understand a couple of things about the process.

When Congress passes enabling legislation like the Agent Orange Act of 1991, the affected Department(s) re-write the law into the language of policy and regulation. So, Congress enacts a bill and it becomes a citation under United States Code or USC, the agency re-writes it into regulation entered into the Code of Federal Regulations or CFR. If the agency or department wishes to make a change to the CFR, it must announce that change in the daily called the Federal Register, which serves as the "public announcement" for the government. To make a change, the proposed change must undergo a period of public comment, in this case a 60 day period during which public comments will be accepted. The agency or department MUST accept all comments, but they are NOT compelled to act on them. Those that do are being responsible. Those that don't...

The announcement yesterday issued by DVA Acting Secretary Gordon Mansfield announced the recission of the manual change they unilaterally and without public comment instituted in 2002 and brought us all to this situation today. The action is being announced in anticipation of a loss in the Haas case. Remember, it was the DVA that appealed.

I don't believe they would have taken this action unless they were almost certain the Circuit Court's rulling will uphold the lower court's ruling in Haas against the DVA.

So what is this announcement about. On the surface it is ONLY about the recission of the manual change. Because part of the Haas decision took the DVA to task for implementing the 2002 manual change without a public comment period, the DVA is dotting its I's and crossing its T's. The DVA must ask for public comments and give details on how to make those comments.

For some strange reason, Mansfield chose to incude in this announcement the warning that he would be changing the CFR entry which defines "Service in the Republic of Vietnam". In order to do that, he would also have to put that out for public comment.

Curiously, that note, added almost as an afterthought, was very vague. Everyone assumed that it meant he would once and for all alter that section in the CFR to exclude the Blue Water Navy Veterans. But the statement does not go that far.

The change might be made to include Blue Water Navy Veterans, and accordingly,we are writing on behalf of the BWNVVA to inquire exactly what change they have in mind. So, let us cross our T's, and dot our I's as well, and slow down the attacks on the DVA. It is why I have not posted one on the Blog.

I do not believe that the DVA is willing to give up that easily, but Haas DOES include other aspects, as was evidenced by the ground covered during the oral arguments. The definition of what Service in Vietnam included was very carefully crafted into the questioning by the panel. At best guess, if there is a concession by the DVA it may be only to the 12 mile limit. Or it may go back to the Vietnam Service Medal, which I think was given to anyone who served in the Combat Zone.

So, let's take some time and find out whether we have been beating a dead horse for the past 24 hours, or whether we really should be celebrating.

VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -- President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." --President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Agent Orange Fair Compensation Act

We have to ask-- again -- Senators Akaka and Burr to introduce our own version of S.2026, AS A COURTESY TO THE BLUE WATER NAVY VETERANS OF THE VIETNAM WAR.
--------------------------------------
110th CONGRESS
1st Session
S.0000

The Agent Orange Fair Compensation Act

To amend title 38, United States Code, chapter 11, to clarify that an award of benefits based on a regulatory presumption established pursuant to 38 U.S.C. 1116 after September 30, 2002, can be made effective earlier than the date the regulatory presumption was established, in effect, to the date of the first claim; and to clarify that the presumption of herbicide exposure provided by 38 U.S.C. 1116(f) applies to veterans who served in Vietnam on land or on Vietnam's inland waterways and to those who served only in waters offshore or in airspace above.

IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES

December xx, 2007
Mr. X (by request) introduced the following bill; it is co-sponsored by Senator X
A BILL
To amend title 38, United States Code, chapter 11, to clarify and show the intent of Congress that an award of benefits based on a regulatory presumption established pursuant to 38 U.S.C. 1116 after September 30, 2002, must be made effective earlier than the date the regulatory presumption was established, in effect, to the date of the first claim; and to clarify that the presumption of herbicide exposure provided by 38 U.S.C. 1116(f) applies to veterans who served in Vietnam on land or on Vietnam's inland waterways and to those who served only in waters offshore or in airspace above. The determining factor will be receipt of the Vietnam Service Medal, or the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal issued for service in the Vietnam War.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE; REFERENCES TO TITLE 38, UNITED STATES CODE.

(a) Short Title- This Act may be cited as the `Agent Orange Fair Compensation Act'.
(b) References- Wherever in this Act an amendment is expressed in terms of an amendment to a section or other provision, the reference shall be considered to be made to a section or other provision of title 38, United States Code.

SEC. 2. CLARIFICATION OF AUTHORITY TO ESTABLISH PRESUMPTIONS BASED ON HERBICIDE EXPOSURE; CONFIRMATION OF RETROACTIVE PAYMENT.

(a) Section 1116 is amended by adding at the end the following new subsection: `(g) Presumptions established pursuant to this section shall be considered to be presumptions established pursuant to the Agent Orange Act of 1991. Awards based on such presumptions are subject to section 5110 of this title and shall not in any event be made effective earlier than the effective date of the regulation establishing the presumption, but must be made back to the date of first claim, whichever is later.
(b) Applicability- The provisions of section 1116(g) as added by this Act apply to any determination made on or after the date of enactment of this Act, or prior to it back to the date of first claim except as the provisions of section 5110 apply, concerning a person's entitlement to benefits administered by the Secretary.

SEC. 3. CLARIFICATION OF DEFINITION OF SERVICE IN THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM.

(a) Paragraph (f) of section 1116 is amended by adding to the end of that paragraph the following: `For the purposes of this presumption, a veteran will be considered to have served in the Republic of Vietnam if the veteran was physically present on land in Vietnam, or on its inland waterways, or if the veteran served only on the waters offshore or in airspace above, and received either the Vietnam Service Medal or the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for service in Vietnam.'.
(b) Applicability- The provisions of section 1116(f), as amended by this Act, apply to any claim filed on or after February 6, 1991, that is still pending on the date of enactment of this Act, including a claim to reopen or revise a previously denied claim, and to any claim filed on or after the date of enactment of this Act. A claim is pending if it has not been the subject of a final VA decision granting or denying benefits, or if such a decision is currently on appeal before a court. Previously open claims closed subsequent to 2002 shall be reinstated in full. Benefits will be paid to the date of first claim in all cases under this authority, minus any previously paid claims, within the boundaries of section 5110. In all cases under this authority, failure to file an appeal subsequent to a denial after 2002 shall not interrupt retroactive benefits.

[Edited 11/24/2007]

--------------------------------------------

We think enough of this proposed bill to send it by FAX -- again -- to Senators Akaka and Burr with a request that they jointly introduce the bill with favorable comments, as a COURTESY to the Blue Water Navy Veterans of the Vietnam War.

VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." --
President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." --President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Your Help Urgently Needed [repost]

Fellow vets. As you all know, the Gold Star Mothers is an organization of women who have lost a son or daughter in combat. Renowned artist Andrew Chernak has been commissioned to design and sculpt the National Gold Star Mothers Monument in Washington, D.C. Chernak, of suburban Philadelphia, recently unveiled the original Gold Star Mother’s monument in Putnam, New York. Below is a photo of the Putnam monument, dedicated in early July of 2006.
A US Army Vietnam vet, Chernak needs help locating photographs of deceased Navy and Air Force veterans and their Gold Star Mothers. The plan is to etch and carve the photographs into the granite base. He has arranged for Army, Coast Guard and Marine Corp photos, but needs the Navy and Air Force Gold Star Mothers and their sons or daughters.

Preferred are full face photos of both the Gold Star Mothers, and of their sons or daughters in Uniform.

Anyone in contact with a Gold Star Mother who would be willing to submit a photograph of herself and another of her son or daughter should please put them in contact with Mr. Chernak at the following email address:
gsmmemorial@vetsnet.us

Thanks, Veterans, for all you have done. We must also never forget to thank the Mothers of the sons and daughters who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. The sacrifice of the Gold Star Moms must be counted, remembered and honored as well.

Thank you in advance for all your help on this matter, and thank you again for all you've done.

VNVets

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
-- President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious."
--President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2007 VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

NVLSP Testimony Before the Senate VA Committee

On November 7th, 2007, while most of our Blue Water Navy world was focused on the Haas vs. the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the oral arguments of the DVA's appeal, other relevant action was occuring nearby at the Capitol. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee had called a hearing at the same time as the oral arguments were to be heard in the Haas case. The hearing was to take testimony from representatives of relevant organizations. One was the very group that was arguing the Haas case at the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

We reproduce here the testimony of Christine Cote, a litigator from the NVLSP. We think it important to the members of the public, in particular the members of the Blue Water Navy community, to be made aware of the points Ms. Cote made in her testimony. They give a great deal of insight into the processes and workings of the DVA. Some of her testimony is particularly interesting, especially the detailing of the three year growth in the number of claim denials by the DVA's Board of Appeals.

The hearing was called ostensibly to determine why the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims had a huge backlog of cases. Ms. Cote clearly establishes that the backlog is not the fault of that court. One need only look at the rate of claim denials by the Board of Appeals to see why the court is so far behind. Clearly understand the difference between the Board of Appeals and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The USCAVC is made up of Federal Judges. The DVA's Board of Appeals are employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs. There is a difference between policy and law. It is most deeply in evidence in these two bodies.

Here then is Ms. Cote's somewhat lengthy testimony. It is well worth the time to read it and understand what it means:

Begin Transcript
Christine Cote Litigation Attorney National Veterans Legal Services Program
November,6,2007
Statement of Christine Cote
Litigation Attorney
National Veterans Legal Services Program
Before the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
United States Senate
November 7, 2007

Chairman Akaka and Members of the Committee:
I am pleased to have the opportunity to appear before you on behalf of the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) to offer our views on issues relating to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC).

NVLSP is a non-partisan, non-profit veterans service organization, which expressed support for bills throughout the 1980s to repeal the longstanding bar to judicial review of VA adjudication of claims for benefits. Since the CAVC was created in 1988, NVLSP has represented over 1,000 VA claimants before the Court. NVLSP is one of four veterans service organizations making up the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program. As part of that program, NVLSP recruits, trains, and mentors volunteer lawyers to represent veterans who appeal to the CAVC. In addition to its activities with the Pro Bono Program, NVLSP has trained thousands of veterans' service officers and lawyers in veterans benefits law and publishes educational manuals that have been distributed to thousands of veterans advocates to assist them in their representation of VA claimants.

NVLSP commends Chief Judge Greene, and the other CAVC judges and staff, for the steps they have taken to date to promote the expeditious handling of cases. My testimony will touch on our support of S. 2090, to protect privacy and security concerns in court records, and S. 2091, to increase the number of the Court's active judges.

I will also relay some of the frustration experienced by disabled veterans and their family members in navigating the VA claims judicial appeal process. (These issues are addressed in Sections III and IV below.) We will call attention to a few significant problems in the appeal process in need of legislative action.

I. S. 2090
The CAVC will shortly roll out an e-filing system similar to those of other Federal Appellate Courts. E-filing will create efficiencies in the delivery of legal documents to the Court, including paperwork reduction, and convenience in filing and in accessing uploaded records. NVLSP welcomes the implementation of this system.

38 U.S.C. § 7268 provides that "[t]he Court may make any provision which is necessary to prevent the disclosure of confidential information, including a provision that any such document or information be placed under seal to be opened only as directed by the Court." 38 U.S.C. § 7268(b)(1).

In his September 13, 2007 letter to this Committee, Chief Judge Greene suggested that section 7268(a) be amended to limit remote access to the full case file to the parties to an appeal, and their attorneys. Judge Greene astutely noted that veterans cases should be afforded the same considerations provided to Social Security and Immigration appeals by the Judicial Conference's proposed Rule 5.2 (of the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure)-in light of the sensitivity of information contained in such case files.

Judge Greene proposed that section 7268 be amended to provide the CAVC with the same authority to limit access to Court records given to Article III Courts; or simply to amend the language of section 7268 to allow that only decisions and orders of the Court, and briefs and motions of the parties, are accessible by the public. We feel strongly that redaction of certain Court documents rather than limiting access to these documents, as noted above, would increase the workload of the Court and the parties to an appeal exponentially, and, more importantly, could permit sensitive information being inadvertently released to the public in the event of errors in redaction.

II. S. 2091

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of cases being received by the CAVC, and it is expected that over 4,500 appeals will have been filed this year. According to the Board of Veterans' Appeals 2006 Annual Report, the Board's denial rate has increased from 24.2 percent for FY2004 to 38.1 percent for FY2005 to 46.3 percent for FY2006-this is a nearly two-fold increase over a two-year period. This increase, particularly if it continues, could mean that the number of cases appealed to the CAVC could be proportional.

Since Chief Judge Greene recalled several retired judges to assist in the handling of the CAVC caseload, the Court's productivity has increased almost 30 percent. It stands to reason that a permanent increase in the number of seated judges could meet the productivity shown in the recall project. In fact, when one considers that permanent judges will not require repeated "learning curves", as multiple recall judges may, the productivity from the additional permanent judges may very well exceed the productivity levels of Judge Greene's recall project. As such, NVLSP strongly favors the enactment of S. 2091.

III. The Hamster Wheel
Those who represent disabled veterans before the CAVC with any regularity use a certain phrase to describe the system of justice these veterans often face: "the Hamster Wheel". This phrase refers to the phenomenon of a claim being sent back and forth between the CAVC and the Board, and the Board and the RO, before it is ever finally decided. This system often results in veterans having to wait years before there is a final decision on their claim.
We have identified several aspects of the CAVC decision-making process that contribute to this "Hamster Wheel" including: (1) the policy adopted by the CAVC in 2001 in Best v. Principi, 15 Vet.App. 18, 19-20 (2001) and Mahl v. Principi, 15 Vet.App. 37 (2001); and (2) case law requiring the CAVC to dismiss an appeal if the veteran dies while the appeal is pending before the Court.

A. How Best and Mahl Contribute to the Hamster Wheel
In Best and Mahl, the Court held that when it concludes that an error in a Board of Veterans' Appeals decision requires a remand, the Court generally will not address other alleged errors raised by the veteran. The CAVC agreed that it had the power to resolve the other allegations of error, but announced that as a matter of policy, the Court would "generally decide cases on the narrowest possible grounds."

Consider this scenario:
  • after prosecuting a VA claim for benefits for three years, the veteran receives a decision from the Board of Veterans' Appeals denying his claim;
  • the veteran appeals the decision and files a brief arguing that the Board made various legal errors in denying the claim. In response, the VA files a brief defending the VA actions;
  • five years after the claim was filed, the Central Legal Staff of the Court completes a screening memorandum and sends the appeal to a single judge of the CAVC. Then, a year later, a single judge issues a decision resolving only one of the many errors raised by the parties. The single judge issues a decision stating that the Board erred in one of the ways discussed in the veteran's brief and vacates and remands the BVA decision as to the one error, but does not resolve the other alleged errors raised by the parties because the veteran can raise the error on remand;
  • the Board ensures that the one legal error identified by the CAVC is corrected, perhaps after a further remand to the regional office. But not surprisingly, the Board does not change the position it previously took and again rejects the allegations of Board error that the CAVC refused to resolve when the case was before the CAVC. Six or more years after the claim was filed, the Board denies the claim again;
  • 120 days after the new Board denial, the veteran appeals the Board's new decision to the CAVC, raising the same unresolved legal errors he previously briefed to the CAVC.

Best and Mahl may benefit the Court in the short term by allowing a judge to finish an appeal in less time than would be required if he or she had to resolve all of the other disputed issues. However, the CAVC is likely not saving time in the long run. Each time a veteran appeals a case that was previously remanded by the CAVC due to Best and Mahl, Court staff and at least one judge, not to mention veterans and their advocates, will have to duplicate the time expended on the case during the first go-around. Congress should amend Chapter 72 of Title 38 to correct this obstacle to efficiency and justice.


B. How Case Law Requiring CAVC to Dismiss and Appeal if the Veteran Dies While the Appeal is Pending Contributes to the Hamster Wheel.

If an individual, who has filed a claim for VA benefits, dies while the claim is pending before a VA regional office, the Board of Veterans' Appeals, or a reviewing court, the pending claim dies as well. This is true for claims for disability compensation, pension, dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC), and death pension. See Richard v. West, 161 F.3d 719 (Fed. Cir. 1998); Zevalkink v. Brown, 102 F.3d 1236 (Fed. Cir. 1996); Landicho v. Brown, 7 Vet. App. 42 (1994). A survivor may not step into the shoes of the deceased claimant to continue or to appeal the claim-no matter how long the claim has been pending in the VA claims adjudication process.

1. The Route Surviving Family Members Have to Travel to Obtain Benefits Based on the Deceased Claimant's Claim
In order to obtain the benefits that the deceased claimant was seeking at the time of death, a brand new claim for benefits, called accrued benefits, must be filed. See 38 U.S.C. § 5121, 38 C.F.R. § 3.1000. Only certain surviving family members may pursue a claim for accrued benefits. An individual satisfying the definition of a surviving spouse may apply for accrued benefits. If there is no surviving spouse, a surviving child may qualify as a claimant, but only if he or she is: (a) unmarried and under the age of 18; or (b) under the age of 23, unmarried, and enrolled in an institution of higher education. If there is no surviving spouse or qualifying surviving child, a surviving parent may apply for accrued benefits but only if he or she was financially dependent on the claimant at the time of the claimant's death. No brothers or sisters or other family members may apply for accrued benefits. See 38 U.S.C. §§ 101, 5121; 38 C.F.R. § 3.1000(d).

2. Time Limits
The application for benefits must be filed within one year of the date of the claimant's death. VA regulations do allow for extensions of time to file outside of the one-year period, but only if the survivor is able to demonstrate "good cause". 38 C.F.R. § 3.109(b). Thus, the VA may allow for an extension of time, but is not required to do so.

3. No New Evidence Can Be Submitted
The survivor also cannot submit new evidence to show that the deceased claimant is entitled to the benefits sought. Accrued benefits determinations can only be "based on evidence in the file at date of death." 38 U.S.C. § 5121 The VA regulations provide that "evidence in the file" means evidence within the VA's constructive possession, on or before the date of death, but that would only include evidence like existing service personnel records or existing VA medical records. See 38 C.F.R. § 3.1000(a); 67 Fed. Reg. 65,707 (2002).

4. Limitations on the Types of Benefits that Qualify as Accrued Benefits
The opportunity for a qualified survivor to receive accrued benefits under section 5121 is restricted to pending claims of the deceased for "periodic monetary benefits." To be a claim for "periodic monetary benefits", the benefits must be the type that are "recurring at fixed intervals", such as disability compensation.

Many claims are for benefits that are not periodic monetary benefits. For example, in Pappalardo v. Brown, 6 Vet.App. 63 (1993), the Court held that a claim for a one-time payment for specially adapted housing reimbursement assistance under 38 U.S.C. Chapter 21 did not qualify as a claim for periodic monetary benefits for purposes of Section 5121. This is so even though the family had already incurred the expense of remodeling the home in accordance with standards approved by the Boston VARO to meet the needs of the veteran, who had lost the use of both lower extremities due to a service-connected disease, and who died while the housing assistance claim was pending.

5. The Recent Court Decision Carving Out an Exception to the Harsh Rules that Currently Exist
When a claimant with a pending claim dies before a final decision is rendered, the survivor must start the claim all over again at a VA regional office, regardless of how far the pending claim had proceeded in the adjudication process. The inability of the survivor to substitute and pick up where the claimant left off can add years to the claims process by requiring the agency to address an entirely new claim where there had already been development of another claim raised by the deceased.

Frustrated survivors have long sought to continue to prosecute a deceased claimant's disability compensation claim at the Court level. See, e.g., Zevalkink, supra; Landicho, supra at 47. In Padgett v. Nicholson, 473 F.3d 1364 (Fed.Cir. 2007), the Federal Circuit carved out a very limited exception to the harsh rule that a claim dies with the claimant.

In Padgett, more than twelve years after Mr. Padgett initiated his claim, the Court issued a decision reversing the Board's denial and ordering the VA to grant the veteran's disability claim for a hip condition. However, counsel for the veteran learned that Mr. Padgett died in November 2004, shortly before the Court's decision. The Secretary filed a motion to rescind the reversal and dismiss the appeal. The veteran's surviving spouse filed a motion to be substituted as a party to the appeal. The CAVC granted the VA's motion to dismiss-wiping the victory off the books, and denied Mrs. Padgett's motion for substitution, following the normal rule that the claim died when Mr. Padgett died.

NVLSP appealed the Veterans Court's decision on Mrs. Padgett's behalf to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit responded by carving out a very narrow exception. In a case like Mr. Padgett's, in which: (a) the veteran had appealed his claim all the way to the CAVC; (b) the CAVC issued its decision before it became aware that the veteran had died; and (c) the death occurred after all of the legal briefs had been filed with the CAVC so that there was nothing left to do but to issue a decision; then (d) the CAVC could keep its decision on the books by making it effective retroactive to the date of the veteran's death, and allow the surviving spouse to substitute for the veteran in the appeal before the CAVC.

Although Mrs. Padgett received the 12 years' worth of disability benefits for Mr. Padgett's hip disability, most family members of a veteran who dies while his claim is pending before the VA will not be this lucky-and NVLSP urges that family members of a veteran who dies while his or her claim is pending before the agency be permitted to substitute for the veteran and continue the claim.

IV. Inefficiency and Injustice Due to the Lack of Class Action Authority
NVLSP would also like to address the inefficiency from the federal courts lack of clear authority to certify a veteran's lawsuit as a class action. Prior to the Veterans' Judicial Review Act (VJRA) in 1988, U.S. district courts had authority to certify a lawsuit challenging VA rules or policies as a class action on behalf of a large group of similarly situated veterans. See, e.g., Nehmer v. U.S. Veterans Administration, 712 F. Supp. 1404 (N.D. Cal. 1989); Giusti-Bravo v. U.S. Veterans Administration, 853 F. Supp. 34 (D.P.R. 1993). If the district court held that the rule or policy was unlawful, it had the power to ensure that all similarly situated veterans benefited from the court's decision.

With the enactment of the VJRA, Congress transferred jurisdiction over challenges to VA rules and policies from U.S. district courts (which operate under rules authorizing class actions) to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the newly-created CAVC. However, Congress failed to address the authority of the Federal Circuit and the CAVC to certify a case as a class action and the CAVC and Federal Circuit ruled that the CAVC does not have authority to entertain a class action. See, e.g., Lefkowitz v. Derwinski, 1 Vet.App. 439 (1991); Liesegang v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, 312 F.3d 1368, 1378 (Fed. Cir. 2002).

From 1991 to 2002, the VA granted thousands of disability claims filed by Navy blue water veterans suffering from one of the many diseases that VA recognizes as related to Agent Orange exposure. These benefits were awarded based on VA rules providing that service in the waters offshore Vietnam qualified the veteran for the presumption of exposure to Agent Orange set forth in 38 U.S.C. § 1116.

In February 2002, VA issued an unpublished VA MANUAL M21-1 provision stating that a "veteran must have actually served on land within the Republic of Vietnam. . . to qualify for the presumption of exposure to" Agent Orange. As a result, VA denied all pending and new disability claims filed by Navy blue water veterans for an Agent Orange-related disease unless there was proof that that the veteran actually set foot on Vietnamese soil and severed benefits that had been granted to Navy blue water veterans prior to the 2002 rule change.

In November 2003, the CAVC set panel argument to hear the appeal of Mrs. Andrea Johnson, the surviving spouse of a Navy blue water veteran who was denied service-connected DIC by the BVA because the deceased husband, who died of an Agent Orange-related cancer, never set foot on Vietnamese soil. See Johnson v. Principi, U.S. Vet. App. No. 01-0135 (Order, Nov. 7, 2003). Mrs. Johnson's attorneys challenged the legality of the 2002 Manual M21-1 provision mentioned above and it appeared that the CAVC would issue a precedential decision deciding the legality of VA's set-foot-on-land requirement.

Six days before oral argument, the VA General Counsel's Office offered the widow full DIC benefits retroactive to the date of her husband's death, the maximum benefits that she could possibly receive. Once Mrs. Johnson signed the settlement agreement, oral argument was cancelled and the appeal was dismissed. The settlement allowed the VA to continue to deny disability and DIC benefits to Navy blue water veterans and their survivors based on VA's new set-foot-on-land rule.

Some veterans and survivors who were denied benefits based on the 2002 rule gave up and did not appeal the RO decision. Some appealed the RO denials to the Board of Veterans' Appeals, which affirmed the denial. Some of those who received a BVA denial gave up and did not appeal the BVA denial to the CAVC. And some of those who were denied by the RO and the BVA did not give up and appealed to the CAVC.

One of those who pursued his claim all the way to the CAVC was former Navy Commander, Jonathan L. Haas. Commander Haas filed his appeal in March 2004. The CAVC ultimately scheduled oral argument before a panel for January 10, 2006. This time, VA did not offer to settle. On August 16, 2006, a panel of three judges unanimously ruled that VA's 2002 set-foot-on-land requirement was illegal. See Haas v. Nicholson, 20 Vet.App. 257 (2006).

In October 2006, the VA appealed the decision in Haas to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The matter is scheduled for argument today and will be argued by NVLSP Joint Executive Director, Barton Stichman.

Then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Nicholson ordered a moratorium, in effect until the Federal Circuit issues its decision, which prevented the 57 VA ROs and the BVA from deciding any claim filed by a blue water veteran or survivor based on an Agent-Orange related disease unless there is evidence that the veteran set foot on land.

If the CAVC or Federal Circuit had authority to certify a case as a class action on behalf of similarly situated VA claimants, and certified Mrs. Johnson's lawsuit case as a class action, the VA would not have been able to end the case by settlement. Class actions cannot be dismissed merely because one class member is granted benefits. The Court could then have ordered the VA to keep track of, but not decide, the pending claims of all class members until the parties filed their briefs and the Court issued an opinion deciding the legality of VA's set-foot-on-land requirement.

If the Federal Circuit rules in favor of the Navy blue water veterans, no law requires the VA to identify similarly situated claimants, not included in the moratorium, or to notify these similarly situated claimants about the Court's decision. Even if these claimants somehow find out about the Court decision and reapplied, the VA could refuse to pay them the retroactive benefits that it paid to the claimants subject to the moratorium because the VA would conclude that its previous final denial of the claim, which occurred before the Haas decision, was not the product of "clear and unmistakable error." Legislative action is needed to ensure that situations like this do not occur in future.

Thank you for holding such an important hearing and inviting our participation. Thank you also for allowing us to highlight some of the problems faced by disabled veterans and their families during the judicial appeal process.


Back to the hearing
Hearing: Performance and Structure of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
1 - Committee Leadership
Senator Daniel K. Akaka Chairman
2 - Committee Leadership
Senator Richard Burr, Ranking Member
Panel I
The Honorable William P. Greene, Jr., Chief Judge, United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
Panel II
R. Randall Campbell, Assistant General Counsel, Professional Staff Group VII, Department of Veterans Affairs
RICHARD PAUL COHEN PRESIDENT OF THE NATIONAL ORGANIZATION OF VETERANS ADVOCATES
Christine Cote Litigation Attorney National Veterans Legal Services Program
JOSEPH A. VIOLANTE NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR OF THE DISABLED AMERICAN VETERANS
End Transcript

The transcript above was taken from the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs website. [Click Here.]

Any of us who have realized that the DVA has a totally adversarial relationship with those whom they are chartered to serve will have that feeling reinforced and validated after reading Ms. Cote's testimony. If only the press would see what we see.

We had an inquiry recently by a reporter demanding sources for some of our information. In fact, the information is out there for all to see if they would think about where to look. One need seldom go any farther than the recorded record of the official proceedings of government. Much of it is readily available on the Internet. You only have to look.

VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -- President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." --President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Haas Report

We traveled to Washington last Wednesday to attend the oral arguments for the critical case Haas vs. The Department of Veterans Affairs. The arguments were heard at the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in front of a panel of three Justices.

Presiding was Chief Circuit Judge Paul Michel, Circuit Judge Michael Bryson, and visiting Judge Jeremy Fogel of the United States District Court, Northern District of California. Michel was appointed to the Court in 1988 by President Reagan, and elevated to Chief Judge in December of 2006. Bryson was appointed to the Court in 1994 by President Clinton, and Fogel was appointed to the District Court by President Clinton and assumed his seat on the bench in 1998. Fogel is also a Lecturer at Stanford Law School.

Oral arguments at this level are structured thus: the appellant [the Department of Veterans Affairs [DVA] which was appealing the decision in Haas last August in the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims] is given 15 minutes to argue their case. The respondent [the National Veterans Legal Services Program [NVLSP] on behalf of Jonathan Haas], is then given 15 minutes to respond. Finally, the appellant is given 5 minutes to counter any telling points scored by the respondent.

An attorney representing the Department of Veterans Affairs/United States Government, by the name of Hughes, began his argument and within 30 seconds, he was interrupted by Judge Michel, who began peppering him with questions. Bryson joined in, and for the next 32 minutes [the 15 minute time limit was waived by Judge Michel to allow the appellant to respond to the questions of the panel] Hughes danced his way through such issues as the right of the Department of Veterans Affairs to determine its own policy from the law, and to be the final arbiter of those interpretations, the definition of “in Vietnam”, and the issue of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma [NHL], and its precedence of being a recognized Agent Orange disease prior to the Agent Orange Act of 1991, and was recognized as predominantly affecting Naval Veterans who served off shore.

NVLSP attorney Bart Stichman then gave the respondent argument for Haas, using his 15 minutes to carefully and methodically deliver a sound argument about the NHL issue in particular. Essentially, Stichman argued that since the DVA was paying Blue Water Navy sailors [BWN -- those who served off the coast of Vietnam but did not set foot on the ground, as the DVA now requires], prior to the Agent Orange Act of 1991, and is apparently still paying NHL victims who are BWN Veterans, and then had it included in the list of Agent Orange Diseases, that it violates the law of legislation to have 2 sets of criteria for a single law…that is, treating victims of one of the eleven official Agent Orange diseases [NHL] differently than the victims of the other ten diseases by requiring victims of the other ten to have “set foot on the ground in Vietnam”. NHL victims are NOT required to do so.

Stichman also got the Australian Study [which detailed how the dioxins from Agent Orange were introduced into the freshwater systems aboard ships offshore] introduced into the argument at the last minute. The study was introduced into the case earlier in an Amicus Brief filed by Navy Veteran and Attorney John Wells.

In sharp contrast to the peppering of the DVA attorney, Stichman was stopped only a few times and did not require extra time.

The final 5 minutes allotted to DVA attorney Hughes was spent attempting to cast doubt on the Australian Study, claiming its science has never been validated [which of course flies in the face of logic and veracity considering Australia and New Zealand both pay their Blue Water Veterans because of the study!].

The general consensus of those we spoke with after the hearing was that it seemed very favorable to the Haas/BWN side, but no one could predict how the Justices would rule after considering the laws and precedents that had been cited in the case.

You can hear [and download] an MP3 file recording of the entire hearing at the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Go to this site and enter the Haas case docket number, 2007-7037, in the box labeled “Case Number”: http://www.cafc.uscourts.gov/oralarguments/ .

Regardless of the outcome of this case, all Blue Water Navy Veterans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Commander Jonathan Haas, who agreed to have his case be an exemplar, to the National Veterans Legal Services Program, who have so steadfastly and capably pursued this case through the system [and who wore Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association pins at the hearing!], and to Attorney John Wells, who filed the Amicus Brief introducing the Australian Study as evidence.

Fighting these battles builds to an enormous financial cost, and if at all possible, you should consider donating to the cause at both the NVLSP web site [click Donate], and by contacting John Wells at his website [click Contact] to make a donation. Lets give them the kind of hand that is most helpful and practical in this fight: money.

VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -- President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." --President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.