What Veterans Should Know About Extra-Schedular Rating

VA regulations provide for referring a case for extraschedular consideration when a claimant demonstrates an “exceptional or unusual disability picture with such related factors as marked interference with employment or frequent periods of hospitalization as to render impractical the application of regular schedular standards.”  38 C.F.R. § 3.321(b)(1).  Consideration of referral for an extraschedular rating must begin with “a comparison between the level of severity and symptomatology of the claimant’s service-connected disability [and] the established criteria found in the rating schedule for that disability.”  Thun v. Peake, 22 Vet. App. 111, 115 (2008).  VA must evaluate whether “the rating schedule is inadequate to evaluate a claimant’s disability picture.”  Id. at 116.  The disability picture includes all of a claimant’s service-connected disabilities.  See 38 C.F.R. § 3.321(b)(1) (goal of extraschedular consideration is to arrive at “an extra-schedular evaluation commensurate with the average earning capacity impairment due exclusively to the service-connected disability or disabilities”).

The award of an extraschedular disability rating is the result of a three-step inquiry the responsibility for which may be shared among the RO, the Board, and the Under Secretary for Benefits or the Director, Compensation and Pension Services.  Thun, 22 Vet. App. at 115.  The first step is to compare the level of severity and symptomatology of the appellant’s disability with the established criteria in the rating schedule.  Id.  If these criteria “reasonably describe the claimant’s disability level and symptomatology” then the regular schedular rating system is adequate and extraschedular referral is not warranted.  Id.

If the rating schedule does not contemplate the claimant’s level of disability and symptomatology and is found inadequate, then “the RO or Board must determine whether the claimant’s exceptional disability picture exhibits other related factors,” such as “marked interference with employment” or “frequent periods of hospitalization.”  38 C.F.R. § 3.321(b)(1).  When an analysis of the first two steps reveals that the rating schedule is inadequate to evaluate a claimant’s disability picture, then the case must be referred to the Undersecretary for Benefits or the director of the Compensation and Pension Service to complete the third step which is to determine whether to assign an extraschedular disability rating in order to “accord justice.”  Thun, 22 Vet. App. at 116; 38 C.F.R. § 3.321(b)(1).

The Board must consider referral for an extraschedular rating when either a claimant or the evidence of record suggests that a schedular rating may be inadequate.  See Thun v. Peake, 22 Vet. App. 111, 115 (2008).  “The governing norm in these exceptional cases is:  A finding that the case presents such an exceptional or unusual disability picture with such related factors as marked interference with employment or frequent periods of hospitalization as to render impractical the application of the regular schedular standards.”  38 C.F.R. § 3.321(b).  The effects of medications for service-connected conditions can warrant an extraschedular rating referral. Fisher v. Principi, 4 Vet. App. 57 (1993).  Where the Board did not address whether referral for extraschedular consideration was warranted, the Court’s review is “limited to whether the evidence of record sufficiently raises the possibility that this regulation is applicable, such that the Board was required to discuss whether referral was warranted [under section 3.321(b)(1)].”  Barringer v. Peake, 22 Vet. App. 242, 245 (2009).

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

What Disabled Veterans Must Know About Schedular Rating 100%-TDIU or Indiviual Unemployability

Schedular Rating 100%-TDIU or Indiviual Unemployability

In some cases, however, a veteran with less than a 100% scheduler rating is so affected by service-connected conditions that he or she cannot work at gainful employment. The law allows for another type of claim in such a case.

VA benefits are available to compensate a veteran at the 100% level if he or she is not able to work because of service-connected conditions even without a 100% schedular rating. This benefit is called “total disability on the basis of individual unemployability”, (“TDIU”), or sometimes “individual unemployability, ” (“IU”).

The key issue in a TDIU claim is the inability of the veteran to engage in “substantially gainful employment” because of his or her service-connected conditions. “Substantially gainful employment” means to hold a job that pays at least an amount equal to the annual poverty level set by the federal government. In order to qualify for TDIU benefits, a claimant must meet the following requirements:

  1. If the claimant has only one service-connected condition, that condition must be schedular rated at least 60% or more;
  2. If the claimant has two or more service-connected conditions, at least one of those conditions must be rated at 40% or more, and the veteran’s combined disability rating must be 70% or more; and
  3. In either case, the veteran must be unemployable because of his or her service-connected conditions.

To establish “unemployability” or “inability to substantially maintain gainful employment”, the Veteran must provide:

  1. evidence of unemployment due to service-connected conditions, employment history records for example, and
  2. medical evidence that the veteran’s service-connected condition renders him or her totally disabled and unemployable, generally a doctor’s opinion letter.

Having a paying job does not automatically disqualify a claimant from a TDIU award.  If the wages are considered “marginal” (low paying) or “sheltered” (protected from usual requirements) employment are exceptions to the TDIU qualification requirements.  Examples of employment that are allowed under TIDU:

  • A job that pays substantially less than the prevailing poverty level,
  • A job that is protected from requirements that someone else in that position would be expected to satisfy, or
  • A job working for a friend or relative, may not be “substantially gainful employment.”

Although it is always better to submit a specific claim for TDIU.  The VA has a duty to look for potential TDIU claims based on the evidence in the claimant’s VA claims file, known as a “C-file”. The VA is required to review the claims for TIDU, even if not specifically requested by the Veteran, because entitlement to TDIU is part of every claim for disability compensation. Upon reviewing the claim, the VA determines if TDIU is an appropriate award for the claim.  Evidence of unemployability can be submitted after an initial decision denying TDIU, if while a claim for schedular benefits is still being processed.

As with most VA benefits, TDIU is not a permanent benefit. The VA can require a claimant undergo periodic medical examinations to confirm that the claimant remains unable to work due to a service-connected condition. And, as with all VA examinations, a failure to report for a scheduled examination can result in suspension or termination of a TDIU benefit.

In addition, since a TDIU award is also based on “unemployability,” the VA can  periodically request employment information from a claimant receiving TDIU benefits. The VA will also cross check employment earnings with the IRS.

The TDIU rating could be terminated and the claimant could be liable to repay VA for the TDIU benefits paid since that employment began, if:

  1. the VA becomes aware that a claimant is working at a job that is not marginal or sheltered,
  2. A claimant must also be careful in performing volunteer work because the nature and time spent at unpaid work shows that a claimant could be employed and  is no longer unemployable.

If a Veteran is determined to be employale, the TDIU award can and will probably be revoked. When a TDIU rating is revoked, a claimant’s benefits go back to the amount of compensation payable under the scheduler rating and the VA can make the Veteran repay the TDIU award.

Additional Information:

Although it is best to make an explicit claim for TDIU if a claimant believes he or she is eligible, it is no longer required.  Potential entitlement to TDIU is part of every claim for disability compensation.  See Rice v. Shinseki, 22 Vet. App. 447, 454-55 (2009) (TDIU “is part and parcel of the determination of the initial rating for [a] disability”).  It is now well established that the Board must consider “whether a TDIU award is warranted whenever a pro se claimant seeks a higher disability rating and submits cogent evidence of unemployability, regardless of whether he states specifically that he is seeking TDIU benefits.”  Comer v. Peake, 552 F.3d 1362, 1366 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (citing Roberson v. Principi, 251 F.3d 1378 (Fed. Cir. 2001)); see also Rice v. Shinseki, 22 Vet. App. 447, 453-54 (2009) (same).  “[A] request for TDIU, whether expressly raised by a veteran or reasonably raised by the record, is not a separate claim for benefits, but rather involves an attempt to obtain an appropriate rating for a disability or disabilities, either as a part of the initial adjudication of a claim or . . . as a part of a claim for increased compensation.”  Rice v. Shinseki, 22 Vet. App. 447, 453-54 (2009); see also Floyd v. Brown, 9 Vet. App. 88, 96 (1996) (the question of an extraschedular rating is a component of the appellant’s claim for an increased rating).  A request for a higher disability rating and evidence indicating that the claimant’s ability to work was “significantly impaired” by his or her service connected conditions reasonably raises the issue of entitlement to TDIU as an alternative basis for increased compensation.  Id.

VA regulations provide two methods by which TDIU may be granted.  Under the first, TDIU may be assigned to a claimant who is “unable to secure or follow a substantially gainful occupation as a result of service-connected disabilities” provided that he has received a disability rating of 60% or greater, or, if he is service-connected for two or more disabilities, at least one of those disabilities has been assigned a disability rating greater than 40%, and the combined disability rating for all disorders is at least 70%.  38 C.F.R. § 4.16(a).  If the claimant does not meet these schedular TDIU requirements, a TDIU rating may still be obtained by referral to the director of Compensation and Pension Service for extraschedular consideration when the claimant is unemployable by reason of service-connected disabilities.  38 C.F.R. § 4.16(b).

38 C.F.R. section 3.321(b)(1) provides an alternative method of referring a case for extraschedular consideration when a claimant demonstrates an “exceptional or unusual disability picture with such related factors as marked interference with employment or frequent periods of hospitalization as to render impractical the application of regular schedular standards.”  Extraschedular consideration under section 3.321(b) is not the same as TDIU under section 4.16(b) because sections 4.16(b) and 3.321(b)(1) are not interchangeable.  See Kellar v. Brown, 6 Vet. App. 157, 162 (1994) (“the effect of a service-connected disability appears to be measured differently” by the two regulations).  Section 4.16(b) requires evidence of unemployability, while § 3.321(b)(1) requires only “marked interference with employment,” which is a somewhat less severe standard.  See Thun v. Peake, 22 Vet. App. 111, 117 (2008); see also Stanton v. Brown, 5 Vet. App. 563, 564-70 (issue of extraschedular rating is separate from issue of TDIU rating).  In other words, a claimant need not demonstrate total unemployability to obtain a section 3.321(b) extraschedular disability rating.

The term “substantially gainful occupation” is not defined by VA regulation; however, the Court has held that the term refers to, at a minimum, the ability to earn “a living wage.”  Bowling v. Principi, 15 Vet. App. 1, 7 (2001); Moore (Robert) v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 356, 358 (1991).  The Court has also held that a person is engaged in a “substantially gainful occupation” when that occupation “provides annual income that exceeds the poverty threshold for one person.”  Faust v. West, 13 Vet. App. 342, 355-56 (2000).  The M21-1MR states that “voluntary withdrawal from the labor market” is an “extraneous factor” whose “effects” should be “[i]dentif[ied] and isolate[d]” in determining whether the severity of the service-connected conditions preclude a veteran from “obtaining or retaining substantially gainful employment.”  M21-1MR, pt. IV, subpt. ii, ch. 2, sec. F.27.e.  Consequently, voluntary withdrawal from the labor market should not be an automatic bar to TDIU.

In adjudicating an assertion of entitlement to TDIU, the Board must also consider whether the existing VA medical examination reports adequately “address the extent of functional and industrial impairment from the veteran’s service-connected disabilities.”  Gary v. Brown, 7 Vet. App. 229, 232 (1994).  Thus, if the Board determines that the existing examination reports are insufficient to assess the matter of TDIU, it should request additional medical evidence before adjudicating the matter.

In resolving a TDIU case, the question is whether the claimant is capable of securing or maintaining a substantially gainful occupation.  Although a claimant may be physically able to perform sedentary employment, he or she may not be educationally and vocationally qualified to perform such employment.  Although the duty to assist does not require VA to provide a vocational assessment to a claimant seeking a total disability rating based on individual unemployability, a claimant’s education and work experience are relevant to the issue of entitlement to such a rating.  Smith v. Shinseki, 647 F.3d 1380, 1386 (Fed. Cir. 2011).

Specifically, it is within VA’s discretion to determine whether a vocational assessment was required based on “the facts of a particular case” and an assessment would be required “if, for example, the veteran were found medically qualified for a particular type of job, but there was an unusually difficult question as to whether the veteran had the educational or vocational skills for that position.”  Id.  Accordingly, Smith does not require VA to provide a vocational assessment in every instance where a claimant is seeking a total disability rating based on individual unemployability, but it does require VA to at least consider whether a vocational assessment is required and to support its determination that one is not required with an adequate statement of reasons or bases.  Id.see also 38 U.S.C. § 7104(d)(1) (requiring the Board to provide a written statement of the reasons or bases for its “findings and conclusions[] on all material issues of fact and law presented on the record”).

If a claimant does not meet the schedular rating for unemployability provided in 38 C.F.R. § 4.16(a), he may still be granted TDIU on an extraschedular basis.  38 C.F.R. § 4.16(b).  The central inquiry “is whether that veteran’s service-connected disabilities alone are of sufficient severity to produce unemployability.”  Hatlestad v. Brown, 5 Vet. App. 524, 529 (1993).  In making its decision, VA may consider the veteran’s education, special training, and previous work experience, but may not take into consideration any impairment caused by non-service-connected disabilities.  See 38 C.F.R. §§ 3.341, 4.16, 1.19.  The Board’s determination as to whether a claimant is unable to secure and hold substantially gainful employment is a finding of fact that the Court reviews under the “clearly erroneous” standard.  Bowling v. Principi, 15 Vet. App. 1, 6 (2001).

Although the Secretary and the Board can separate parts of a claim and develop and adjudicate them separately, see Fagre v. Peake, 22 Vet. App. 188, 191 n.4 (2008) (noting the Secretary is free to “issu[e] separate Board decisions with regard to each, some, or all disabilities claimed by a veteran”), TDIU remains a component of an increased rating claim for any period not adjudicated separately, and the Board has jurisdiction over the issue as long as it has jurisdiction over an increased rating claim.  See Rice v. Shinseki, 22 Vet. App. 447, 453-54 (2009).  Evidence of unemployability subsequent to a decision denying TDIU and while a claim for increased benefits is still being processed may lead to an award of TDIU for the time period under adjudication.  If TDIU is not warranted pursuant to 38 C.F.R. section 4.16(a), the matter of a TDIU rating may still be referred to the director of Compensation and Pension Service for extraschedular consideration when it is found that the claimant is unemployable by reason of service-connected disabilities.  38 C.F.R. § 4.16(b).

 “Evidence of unemployability,” does not equate to “100% unemployable.”  Roberson v. Principi, 251 F.3d at 1378, 1384-85 (Fed. Cir. 2001).  Instead, an appellant is not required “to show 100[%] unemployability in order to prove that he cannot ‘follow substantially gainful occupation.'”  Id.  Section 4.16(a) also indicates that “[m]arginal employment shall not be considered substantially gainful employment.”  Marginal employment includes employment in a “protected environment” including a “sheltered workshop.”  38 C.F.R. § 4.16(a).

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

How Clear And Unmistakable Error Affects VA Disability Claims

A decision that has become final may not be reversed or revised in the absence of a showing of CUE.  38 U.S.C. § 7111(a).  CUE “is a very specific and rare kind of error . . . that when called to the attention of later reviewers compels the conclusion, to which reasonable minds could not differ, that the result would have been manifestly different but for the error.”  38 C.F.R. § 20.1403(a).

The Court has no jurisdiction to consider a CUE claim it in the first instance.  38 U.S.C. § 7252(a); Andrea v. Principi, 301 F.3d 1354, 1361 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (holding that “each ‘specific’ assertion of CUE constitutes a claim that must be the subject of a decision by the [Board] before the Veteran’s Court can exercise jurisdiction over it”); Russell v. Principi, 3 Vet. App. 310, 315 (1992) (en banc) (noting that “[t]he necessary jurisdictional ‘hook’ for this Court to act is a decision of the [Board] on the specific issue of ‘clear and unmistakable error'”).VA law allows a veteran – at any time – to request that a decision be reviewed and corrected if VA committed a “clear and unmistakable error” (often called a “CUE”). This is a very powerful right. Unfortunately, it is also a widely misunderstood and a misapplied right.  A true CUE is not common and is a difficult claim to win.

A request for revision of a decision based on CUE is an exception to the rule of finality and is grounds to reverse or revise a decision by the Secretary.  38 U.S.C. §§ 5109A, 7111; DiCarlo v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 52 (2006); 38 C.F.R. §§ 3.105(a), 20.1400-1411.  A CUE motion is a collateral attack on a final VA regional office decision or Board decision.  Disabled Am. Veterans v. Gober, 234 F.3d 682, 696-98 (Fed. Cir. 2000).

A CUE is a special type of error and a claim for revision of a previous denial on the basis of CUE can be filed at any time, even years or decades after the claim was decided or the appeal denied.

  • (1) Claim must be a “closed claim” also known as a “final decision” for a CUE review.  The finald decision must be from the VARO, Veterans Administration Regional Office, or the BVA, Board of Veterans Appeals and was never appealed, and
  • (2) either the correct facts were not before the adjudicator or the statutory or regulatory provisions in existence at the time were incorrectly applied; and
  • (3) the error is “undebatable;” and
  • (4) the error must make a difference in the outcome. In other words, a CUE is not a disagreement with a decision or an argument that VA got it wrong.

When CUE does occur and a claim is granted, the usual rules for setting the effective date of an award is by-passed. The effective date of a CUE claim goes back all the way to the filing date of the claim with the CUE. This can result in huge awards of retroactive benefits.

Because a claim for CUE is a review of an already “closed claim” also known as “final decision claim”, special rules apply:

  1. the “duty to assist” does not apply. This means that VA does not help a claimant with a CUE claim.
  2. a CUE claim must contain specific and detailed statements regarding the error:
    1. how that error affected the decision, and
    2. why the decision would be different (more favorable to the claimant) if the error is corrected. Merely stating that CUE occurred or general statements similar to those in a benefits claim are not enough. For example:  a decision awarding benefits based on a single gunshot wound when the veteran had two gunshot wounds is a CUE. A CUE claim asserting that a gunshot wound was more painful than VA concluded is clearly not a CUE.

Undebatable:

Further, the alleged error must be “undebatable,” not merely “a disagreement as to how the facts were weighed or evaluated.”  Russell v. Principi, 3 Vet. App. 310, 313-14 (1992) (en banc).  The error must have “manifestly changed the outcome” of the decision being attacked on the basis of CUE at the time that decision was rendered.  Id. at 313-14, 320; see Bustos v. West, 179 F.3d 1378, 1380-81 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (expressly adopting the “manifestly changed the outcome” language in Russell).  A mere disagreement with how the facts were weighed or evaluated is not enough to substantiate a CUE claim.  Damrel v. Brown, 6 Vet. App. 242, 246 (1994).

CUE WARNING:

A veteran can only claim CUE one time for each decision. This means that if a claimant files a CUE claim and the VA finds that the claim does not contain the required level of detail, that CUE claim is lost forever. For this reason, claimants who believe that they have a possible CUE claim are strongly urged to seek advice from a VSO, registered agent, or experienced attorney.

Errors that cannot constitute CUE, pursuant to 38 C.F.R. sections 20.1403(d) and (e), include:

(1)   a changed diagnosis, where a “new medical diagnosis . . . ‘corrects’ an earlier diagnosis considered in a Board decision;”

(2)   VA’s failure to comply with the duty to assist;

(3)   a “disagreement as to how the facts were weighed;” and

(4)   a subsequent change in interpretation of the statute or regulation that was applied in the Board decision.

Jordan v. Nicholson, 401 F.3d 1296, 1298-99 (Fed. Cir. 2005); cf. Cook, 318 F.3d at 1346 (“The requirements that [CUE] be outcome determinative and be based on the record that existed at the time of the original decision make it impossible for a breach of the duty to assist to form the basis for a CUE claim.”); see also MacKlem v. Shinseki, 24 Vet. App. 63 (2010); Damrel, 6 Vet. App. at 246; Fugo, 6 Vet. App. at 43-44.

When the Court reviews a Board determination that there was no CUE in a prior final decision, the Court’s review is generally limited to determining whether the Board’s conclusion is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law,” 38 U.S.C. § 7261(a)(3)(A), and whether it is supported by adequate reasons or bases.  38 U.S.C. § 7104(d)(1); Joyce v. Nicholson, 19 Vet. App. 36, 43-44 (2005); Lane v. Principi, 16 Vet. App. 78, 83-84 (2002), aff’d, 339 F.3d 1331 (Fed. Cir. 2003); Eddy v. Brown, 9 Vet. App. 52, 57 (1996); Archer v. Principi, 3 Vet. App. 433, 437 (1992); Russell v. Principi, 3 Vet. App. 310, 315 (1992). However, whether the claimant has presented a valid CUE allegation and whether an applicable law or regulation was not applied are questions of law that are reviewed de novo.  Joyce, 19 Vet. App. at 43; see also Kent v. Principi, 389 F.3d 1380, 1384 (Fed. Cir. 2004).

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has held that “a veteran’s assertion of a particular clear and unmistakable error by the RO constitutes a distinct claim.”  Andre v. Principi, 301 F.3d 1354, 1361 (Fed. Cir. 2002).  Because the “Federal Circuit equates ‘issue’ with a ‘claim’ and not a theory or element of the claim,” “an appellant has only one opportunity to raise any allegation of clear and unmistakable error for each claim decided in a Board decision and any subsequent attempt to raise a clear and unmistakable error challenge to the same claim contained in a Board decision will be dismissed with prejudice.”  Hillyard v. Shinseki, 24 Vet. App. 343, 354 (2011); 38 C.F.R. § 20.1409(c).  A claimant, thus, has only one chance to file a CUE claim on a prior decision.  Id.

Although CUE does not require “pleading with exactitude,” it nevertheless must be plead with “some degree of specificity.”  Jordan v. Principi, 17 Vet. App. 261, 270-71 (2003) (finding that although “the liberal construction of a VA claimant’s pleading must be tempered somewhat in CUE cases” that “does not require pleading with exactitude”); Andre v. Principi, 301 F.3d 1354, 1361 (Fed. Cir. 2002).  Assertions of CUE raised by counsel, however, are not entitled to a liberal reading.  See Robinson v. Shinseki, 557 F.3d 1355 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (distinguishing between filings by counsel in direct appeals to the Board and assertions of CUE, and holding that filings in direct appeals to the Board must be read liberally, whether filed by counsel or claimant).  Massie v. Shinseki, 25 Vet. App. 123, 131 (2011); MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.1 (Competence), 1.3 (Diligence); U.S. VET. APP. R. ADM. & PRAC. 4(a) (adopting the Model Rules of Professional Conduct as disciplinary standard for practice).  Perfection of an appeal for a claim involving CUE involves the same steps as any other claim.  38 U.S.C. § 5109A(e) (“[CUE claims] shall be submitted to the Secretary and shall be decided in the same manner as any other claim.”); see Andre, 301 F.3d at 1361 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (holding that “each ‘specific’ assertion of CUE constitutes a claim that must be the subject of a decision by the [Board] before the Veterans Court can exercise jurisdiction over it”).

The VCAA does not apply to CUE actions.  See Livesay v. Principi, 15 Vet. App. 165 (2001) (en banc) (holding VCAA does not apply to Board CUE motions); Baldwin v. Principi, 15 Vet. App. 302 (2001) (holding VCAA does not apply to RO CUE claims).  In other words, the VA has no duty to assist claimants with CUE claims.  See Livesay, 15 Vet. App at 178 (noting that the CUE “movant bears the burden of presenting . . . specific allegations of error”); 38 C.F.R. § 20.1404 (“The motion must set forth clearly and specifically the . . . errors, of fact or law in the Board decision, the legal or factual basis for such allegations, and why the result would have been manifestly different but for the alleged error.”); see also Andrews v. Nicholson, 421 F.3d 1278, 1283 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (noting that the duty to read pro se filings sympathetically applies to CUE motions); Brokowski v. Shinseki, 23 Vet. App. 79, 85 (2009) (whether a sympathetic reading of a veteran’s filing raises a valid claim is a factual inquiry, reviewed under the “clearly erroneous” standard).

The spouse of a deceased claimant has no right to file a CUE claim because “a survivor has no standing to request review of a decision affecting the disability benefits of a veteran on the ground of CUE” as 38 U.S.C. section 5109A does not “provide[] for another person, even a survivor, to seek correction of a decision on a veteran’s claim.”  Haines v. West, 154 F.3d 1298, 1301 (Fed. Cir. 1998).

Reference: 38 C.F.R. 20.1403

§ 20.1403 Rule 1403. What constitutes clear and unmistakable error; what does not.

 (a) General. Clear and unmistakable error is a very specific and rare kind of error. It is the kind of error, of fact or of law, that when called to the attention of later reviewers compels the conclusion, to which reasonable minds could not differ, that the result would have been manifestly different but for the error. Generally, either the correct facts, as they were known at the time, were not before the Board, or the statutory and regulatory provisions extant at the time were incorrectly applied.
 (b) Record to be reviewed—
  •  (1) General. Review for clear and unmistakable error in a prior Board decision must be based on the record and the law that existed when that decision was made.
  •  (2) Special rule for Board decisions issued on or after July 21, 1992. For a Board decision issued on or after July 21, 1992, the record that existed when that decision was made includes relevant documents possessed by the Department of Veterans Affairs not later than 90 days before such record was transferred to the Board for review in reaching that decision, provided that the documents could reasonably be expected to be part of the record.
 (c) Errors that constitute clear and unmistakable error. To warrant revision of a Board decision on the grounds of clear and unmistakable error, there must have been an error in the Board’s adjudication of the appeal which, had it not been made, would have manifestly changed the outcome when it was made. If it is not absolutely clear that a different result would have ensued, the error complained of cannot be clear and unmistakable.
 (d) Examples of situations that are not clear and unmistakable error—
  •  (1) Changed diagnosis. A new medical diagnosis that “corrects” an earlier diagnosis considered in a Board decision.
  •  (2) Duty to assist. The Secretary’s failure to fulfill the duty to assist.
  •  (3) Evaluation of evidence. A disagreement as to how the facts were weighed or evaluated.
 (e) Change in interpretation. Clear and unmistakable error 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.
(Authority: 38 U.S.C. 501(a)7111)

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

What Disabled Veterans Should Know About VA Claim Backlogs and Delays

It is no secret that VA continues to be plagued by a large backlog of claims. Despite repeated promises and commitments for improvement, VA’s backlog has actually grown significantly over the last few years. For example, by VA’s own accounting, the Secretary’s stated goal of 125 days to reach an initial decision has gone from being met in approximately 2 out of 3 claims to only 1 in 3 claims. Worse yet, the average time for a decision by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals is approaching 3 years and the time for a decision to return from an appeal to the Court can be 7 or 8 years.

There is no such thing as a “financial hardship” or “hardship” claim or any other shortcut around the backlog for initial or reopened claims. Despite widespread misinformation, there is little, if anything, that a veteran can do to “speed up” his or her initial or reopened claim at the regional office level. This does not mean that some raters will not take such circumstances into consideration if they know the claimant’s situation. But because severe financial circumstances, a terminal illness, or other hardships do not qualify a claimant for any special treatment, a claimant cannot demand such treatment. The only exception is for the claims of veterans that are or on the verge of becoming homeless. In such cases, the Secretary has directed expedited treatment of claims. Even this action is not a legal requirement, only a VA internal priority.

The Board does allow “advancement on the docket” of appeals from claimants that are “seriously ill” or “under severe financial hardship.” The Board will also consider motions from veterans over 75 years of age. Whatever the reason, veterans seeking to advance on the Board’s docket need to be very specific about why they should be able to do so and submit supporting evidence (such as a doctor’s statement or foreclosure notice) because many veterans are ill or are in financial difficulty and everyone cannot be given priority by the Board.

Other than filing a motion for advancement with the Board, attempting to “put pressure” on a VA office, the Board, or the Court is not only a waste of time, it can result in additional delay because the C-file may be removed from the line waiting for decision so that VA can respond to such attempts. This includes Congressional “inquiries,” which are often just exchanges of form letters.

There is slightly better news for claims remanded from the Board and the Court. VA is required by law to provide “expeditious treatment” of remanded claims. The Court has made clear that remands must receive higher priority development than other claims. How long VA can take to resolve a remanded claim under the “expeditious treatment” rule is not clear, but claimants can at least point to this requirement in dealing with delays in remanded claims and, if necessary, seek a Court order for VA to make a decision.

In all cases, the best thing a claimant can do is to quickly respond to each VA request with clear and to the point responses do not give VA any reason to delay making a determination.

The Secretary has a statutory obligation to expeditiously process remands from this Court.  Thus, not only must the Secretary ensure that he completes the Court-ordered task, he must do so in an expeditious manner.  38 U.S.C. §§ 5109B, 7112.  Excessive delays in the processing of remands ordered by the Court cannot help but sap public confidence and impugn the Court’s dignity, as from the outside it invariably appears that VA is ignoring the valid mandates of an institution that has express authority over it in matters related to veterans benefits.  See Erspamer v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 3 (1990) (discussing delay in administrative action and public confidence).

Furthermore, the Secretary’s obligation to process Court remands expeditiously is integral to this Court’s jurisdictional authority to remedy unreasonable delays in the processing of veterans’ claims.  See Vietnam Veterans of America v. Shinseki, 599 F.3d 654, 659–660 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (suggesting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims may have exclusive jurisdiction over claims concerning unreasonable delays in processing); see also Ribaudo v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 552, 557 (2007) (“With respect to matters relating to veterans-benefits claims, however, Congress adopted a very different approach to judicial review.  A decision of the Board can only be appealed to a single venue—this Court.” (citing 38 U.S.C. § 7252(a))).  Therefore, failure by the Secretary to comply with his obligation to process Court remands expeditiously, is the same as noncompliance with the remand order itself, even if the Secretary eventually complies with the substance of the order.  Harvey v. Shinseki, 24 Vet. App. 284, 288 (2011).

 “While there is no absolute definition of what is reasonable time, we know that it may encompass ‘months, occasionally a year or two, but not several years or a decade.'” Community Nutrition Institute v. Young, 773 F.2d 1356, 1361 (D.C. Cir. 1985) (quoting MCI Communications Corp. v. FCC, 627 F.2d 322, 340 (D.C. Cir. 1980).  Erspamer v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 3, 10 (1990).  When delay is alleged as the basis for a petition for writ of mandamus, a clear and indisputable right to the writ does not exist unless the petitioner demonstrates that the alleged delay is so extraordinary, given the demand on and resources of the Secretary, that it is equivalent to an arbitrary refusal to act.  Compare Costanza v. West, 12 Vet. App. 133, 134 (1999) (per curiam order) (addressing an 11–month delay and finding the petitioner did not demonstrate that he lacked alternative means of relief when he did not undertake to resolve delay prior to filing the petition), with Erspamer v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 3, 11 (1990) (addressing a three-year delay and finding petitioner had no adequate alternative means for relief when she contacted the regional office more than 30 times before filing her petition with the Court).

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

What Disabled Veterans Should Know About the St. Louis Fire and the VA Medical Records

In 1973 there was a fire at the National Personnel Records Center (“NPRC”) in St. Louis. The NPRC is an official repository for records of military veterans who served in the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. This event is important to many veterans because a large number of military service records were destroyed. The “fire” has become something of an urban legend because VA sometimes cites it as reason for not obtaining a veteran’s service records, sometimes even when the veteran left service after the fire occurred. According to a VA “Fact Sheet,” the fire destroyed about 80% of Army records for persons discharged between November 1912 and January 1960 and about 75% of Air Force records for persons discharged between September 1947 and January 1964. Because of poor recordkeeping and loaning of records, it is not possible to say for sure exactly which records were destroyed within these groups.

No other records were lost in the fire. VA itself has stated that records for veterans who left service after 1964 were not affected and that only Army and Air Force records were involved (no Navy records were affected). Clearly, records for veterans who left service after 1973 could not have been destroyed in a 1973 file. As a result, any time the “fire” is cited as a reason for VA not locating service records, veterans should take the time to determine if the record could have been affected and, if not, challenge the VA’s conclusion.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

How Effective Date Affects VA Original and Re-opened Disability Compensation Claims

The determination of the effective date for an original claim or a reopened claim is governed by 38 U.S.C. section 5110(a), which provides: “Unless specifically provided otherwise in this chapter, the effective date of an award based on an original claim [or] a claim reopened after final adjudication . . . shall be fixed in accordance with the facts found, but shall not be earlier than the date of receipt of application therefor.”  The implementing regulation similarly states that the effective date shall be the date of receipt of the claim or the date entitlement arose, whichever is later, unless the claim is received within one year after separation from service.  See 38 C.F.R. § 3.400.  “Generally, effective dates of compensation awards are attached to the date of receipt of the application for benefits, and no earlier.”  Sharp v. Shinseki, 23 Vet. App. 267, 273 (2009) (citing 38 U.S.C. § 5110(a)).  Significantly, “the effective date of an award of service connection is not based on the date of the earliest medical evidence demonstrating a causal connection, but on the date that the application upon which service connection was eventually awarded was filed with VA.”  Lalonde v. West, 12 Vet. App. 377, 382 (1999); seeBrannon v. West, 12 Vet. App. 32, 35 (1998) (the “mere presence of medical evidence does not establish the intent on the part of a veteran to seek service connection for a condition.”).

The effective date may also be the date on which entitlement to the benefit arose, if later than the date of the claim.  38 C.F.R. § 3.400(o).  A challenge to a decision assigning an effective date with which a claimant disagrees may be made through a direct appeal of the decision, commencing with the timely filing of a Notice of Disagreement.  38 U.S.C. § 7105.  The NOD must be in writing and filed within one year “from the date of mailing of notice of the result of initial review or determination.”  38 U.S.C. § 7105(b)(1).  Rowell v. Principi, 4 Vet. App. 9, 17 (1993); Cuevas v. Principi, 3 Vet. App. 542, 546 (1992).  Alternatively, if the decision assigning an effective date has become final, a claimant may only pursue one of the statutory exceptions to challenge the finality of that decision.  See DiCarlo v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 52, 56-57 (2006) (discussing the types of collateral attack authorized to challenge a final decision by the Secretary); see also Cook v. Principi, 318 F.3d 1334, 1339 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (en banc) (same).

However, in Rudd v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 296, 299 (2006), the Court held that claimants may not properly file, and VA has no authority to adjudicate, a freestanding earlier-effective-date claim in an attempt to overcome the finality of an unappealed RO decision.  The Court reasoned that to allow such claims would vitiate the rule of finality. Id. Although there are numerous exceptions to the rule of finality and application of res judicata within the VA adjudication system, a freestanding claim for an earlier effective date is not one of the recognized statutory exceptions to finality.  See DeLisio v. Shinseki, 25 Vet. App. 45, 51 (“[A]n effective date generally can be no earlier than the date of the claim.”); Canady v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 393, 398 (2006) (holding that a “proper effective date is a finding of fact” reviewed under the “clearly erroneous” standard).

A claimant may establish an effective date earlier than the date of the claim if the claimant is able to show an increase in disability in the one-year period preceding the claim. Hart v. Mansfield, 21 Vet. App. 505, 509 (2007) (“When a claim for an increased rating is granted, the effective date assigned may be up to one year prior to the date that the application for increase was received if it is factually ascertainable that an increase in disability had occurred within that timeframe.”); Dalton v. Nicholson, 21 Vet. App. 23, 34 (2007) (“Board is required to search the record to determine whether it is factually ascertainable that in the one year prior to the application there was an increase in disability.”); Harper v. Brown, 10 Vet. App. 125, 126-27 (1997) (noting that the general rule applies unless it is factually ascertainable that the increase occurred within the year preceding the filing of the claim); see also Scott v. Brown, 7 Vet. App. 184, 189 (1994) (under the terms of section 5110(b)(2), the effective date is either the date of the claim or “some date in the preceding year if it were ascertainable that the disability had increased in severity during that time”).

In other words, the actual increase in disability must have occurred during the one-year period immediately preceding the date of the claim; any evidence demonstrating an increase earlier than the one-year period is not a basis for an effective date earlier than the date of the claim.  The Board’s determination of the proper effective date for an award of VA benefits is a finding of fact reviewed under the “clearly erroneous” standard of review set forth in 38 U.S.C. § 7261(a)(4).

There are only two ways to establish an earlier effective date after a decision has become final:  (1) by establishing a “Clear and Unmistakable Error” was made or (2) by submitting official service department records that existed, but were not considered, in a decision.  See 38 U.S.C. §§ 5109A, 7111; 38 C.F.R. §§ 3.156(c); 20.1403.  As discussed elsewhere in this Knowledge Book, CUE is a “very specific and rare kind of error” that has special pleading requirements.  Section 3.156(c), however, is fairly straightforward.  If VA or a claimant discovers a service department record, such as a service record, service medical record, or unit report or log, and it is relevant to a previous decision, VA must reconsider that decision.  If reconsideration of the claim with the newly found record results in an award, the effective date of that award is the date that the originally denied claim was submitted, no matter how far back.  38 C.F.R. § 3.156(c)(3).

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

What Disabled Veterans Must Know About VA Disability Claims Nexus Letter

A “nexus letter” is a document prepared for a claimant by a medical professional that explicitly connects an in-service event to the current medical condition for which a claimant is seeking compensation. A claimant is not required to submit a nexus letter, but such a letter can make the difference between an award and a denial. A nexus letter can be submitted with an initial application, during claim development, or after an adverse C&P exam. Submitting a properly worded nexus letter as early as possible in the process, however, is good practice.

A nexus letter is especially important in cases where a claimant has not submitted any medical evidence and a C&P examiner concludes that there is no connection between a claimant’s condition and military service. Without a nexus letter, the claim will be denied. Even when a claimant supplies supporting medical evidence with an application, VA raters can and often do choose the opinion of the VA examiner over a private physician’s opinion for many reasons. In such a case, a “nexus letter” from a private physician is necessary to respond to the C&P examiner’s conclusion.

One reason for raters favoring VA examiner’s conclusions regarding a nexus when there are conflicting or unclear medical opinions is that VA examiners are more familiar with the terms that raters look for when deciding a claim. As described above, VA regulations require only that it be “at least as likely as not” that a condition be related to service for an award. This means that the likelihood of service connection is equal to or greater than 50% (a 50/50 chance or better).

Most medical professionals, however, are not familiar with the VA system or the VA concept of “at least as likely as not.” Physicians are generally familiar with the concept of “medical certainty,” which is a much higher standard than that required by VA. As a result, private physicians may apply the wrong standard if the VA terms are not explained to them. Even then, a private physician may be reluctant to state a conclusion regarding nexus and, if they do, may qualify their conclusion with terms such as “may,” “could,” “suggests,” or “possibly.” VA will often point to such qualifying terms as not meeting the legal standard for establishing a nexus, although the physician actually believed that the condition was more than 50% likely service connected.

To prevent such misunderstandings, a claimant should make sure that the medical professional asked to provide a nexus letter understands the importance of the letter and of using the VA “magic words” to correctly state the physician’s medical opinion. The terms “more likely than not” (meaning greater than 50% likelihood of a connection) and “at least as likely as not” (meaning equal to or greater than 50% likelihood of a connection) are important to use so that VA will have to recognize the nexus letter as supporting service-connection. Any other terms may be misunderstood or misconstrued by VA into something not supporting service-connection. Bringing the relevant C&P Examination Worksheet to the examination or providing it to the medical professional may be helpful.

The Court has stated that “when a nexus between a current disability and an in-service event is ‘indicated,’ there must be a medical opinion that provides some nonspeculative determination as to the degree of likelihood that a disability was caused by an in-service disease or incident to constitute sufficient medical evidence on which the Board can render a decision with regard to nexus.”  McLendon v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 79, 85 (2006) (emphasis added).  The Court has also noted that medical evidence that is too speculative to establish nexus is also insufficient to establish a lack of nexus; a VA medical examination must be undertaken to resolve the nexus issue.  Id. (citing Forshey v. Principi, 284 F.3d 1335, 1363 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (Mayer, C.J., and Newman, J., dissenting) (“The absence of actual evidence is not substantive ‘negative evidence'”)).  Jones v. Shinseki, 23 Vet. App. 382, 387-88 (2010).

If the Board finds his or her testimony credible, a claimant does not need competent medical evidence to substantiate his or her claim.  See Savage v. Gober, 10 Vet. App. 488, 495–96 (1997) (holding that, per 38 C.F.R. section 3.303(b), medical evidence of nexus is not required for benefits if the veteran demonstrates continuity of symptoms between his present disability and service); see also Davidson v. Shinseki, 581 F.3d 1313, 1316 (Fed. Cir. 2009).  Arneson v. Shinseki, 24 Vet. App. 379, 388 (2011).

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

What Disabled Veterans Should Know About Benefit of the Doubt When Filing VA Disability Claims

A key difference between the VA benefits system and other federal benefits systems is the standard for how convincing the evidence has to be in order to support an award. In legal terms, this is called the “standard of proof” or the “evidentiary standard.” Most people are familiar with the standard of proof of “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal trial. This is a very high evidentiary standard.

In VA benefits cases the standard of proof is a “preponderance of the evidence.” This is a very low – and more easily met – evidentiary standard. Because “preponderance” means the “majority,” an award should be granted when the evidence supporting a claim is ever so slightly more than the evidence against a claim. Another way of stating this is that VA is supposed to grant a award unless more evidence is against the claim than supports the claim.

The preponderance of the evidence standard leads directly to another important rule, known as the “benefit of the doubt” rule. The law requires that, after consideration of all the evidence, if there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence, the benefit of the doubt in resolving each such issue should be given to the claimant. In other words, if VA finds that the evidence is equally divided between evidence supporting a claim and evidence against a claim, such as two conflicting medical opinions, the claimant gets the benefit of the positive evidence. For this reason, the rule is also known as the “tie goes to the runner” rule, where the claimant is the runner.

The benefit of the doubt rule, however, is widely misunderstood and is often the source of great frustration for claimants. Despite what many believe, the rule does not mean that VA must make an award anytime a claimant submits an account of an event supporting an award. The rule also does not mean that VA has to believe a claimant, a claimant’s spouse, or claimant’s doctor when other evidence is in conflict with their statements. VA is always required to weigh such evidence against other evidence, such as service records or other medical opinions, but VA can find other evidence more convincing.

All the rule really means is that when all the evidence on a particular issue is equally balanced between positive and negative, VA must give the benefit of the doubt to the veteran on that particular issue. The rule only applies when there is a close call on some issue: when the evidence tilts one way or the other, the rule does not apply. Further, giving the benefit of the doubt on one issue does not mean the entire claim must be resolved in favor of a claimant. This is because the rule is applied to individual issues, not an entire claim. So, for example, resolving whether a certain event occurred during service using the benefit of the doubt rule does not have any effect on the issue of whether there is a nexus between the incident and a current condition. If the evidence is strongly against a nexus, the claim will still be (correctly) denied.

Pursuant to 38 C.F.R. § 3.102, any reasonable doubt must be resolved in favor of the appellant “[w]hen there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence regarding any issue material to the determination of a matter.”  “The Secretary shall consider all information and lay and medical evidence of record in a case before the Secretary with respect to benefits under laws administered by the Secretary.  When there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence regarding any issue material to the determination of a matter, the Secretary shall give the benefit of the doubt to the claimant.”  38 U.S.C. § 5107(b).

“When after careful consideration of all procurable and assembled data, a reasonable doubt arises regarding the degree of disability such doubt will be resolved in favor of the claimant.”  38 C.F.R. § 4.3.  Section 3.102 defines the term “reasonable doubt” as used in § 4.3 as doubt “which exists because of an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence which does not satisfactorily prove or disprove the claim.”  38 C.F.R. § 3.102; see Ortiz v. Principi, 274 F.3d 1361, 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (stating that section 3.102 “restates” the provisions of 38 U.S.C. section 5107(b) (benefit of the doubt) in terms of “reasonable doubt”).  Thus where the Board concludes that the evidence is not in equipoise, specific consideration of section 4.3 is not warranted.  See Schoolman v. West, 12 Vet. App. 307, 311 (1999) (explaining that where the preponderance of the evidence is against an appellant’s claims, “the benefit of the doubt doctrine does not apply”).  Mayhue v. Shinseki, 24 Vet. App. 273, 282 (2011).

Perhaps the analogy most helpful to an understanding of the “benefit of the doubt” rule is that the standard is similar to the rule deeply embedded in sandlot baseball folklore that “the tie goes to the runner.”  If the ball clearly beats the runner, he is out and the rule has no application; if the runner clearly beats the ball, he is safe and, again, the rule has no application; if, however, the play is close, then the runner is called safe by operation of the rule that “the tie goes to the runner.”  Similarly, if a fair preponderance of the evidence is against a veteran’s claim, it will be denied and the “benefit of the doubt” rule has no application; if the veteran establishes a claim by a fair preponderance of the evidence, the claim will be granted and, again, the rule has no application; if, however, the play is close, i.e., “there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence,” the veteran prevails by operation of 38 U.S.C. section 5107(b).  Gilbert v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 49, 55-56 (1990).

The Court has held that the failure of the BVA to apply the benefit of the doubt rule or to set forth clearly its reasons for not applying it constitutes error.  See O’Hare v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 365, 367 (1991); Sussex v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 526, 529 (1991).  In addition, the Court notes that 38 U.S.C. 1154(b) provides specifically that the Secretary “shall resolve every reasonable doubt in favor of the veteran.”  38 C.F.R. § 3.302.  Furthermore, when the BVA can cite no evidence or facts by which to impeach or contradict a claim, there is no justifiable basis upon which to deny application of the doctrine under 38 C.F.R. § 3.102.  Sheets v. Derwinski, 2 Vet. App. 512, 516-17 (1992).

Because the benefit of the doubt rule only applies in these specific situations, the rule is not applicable to many claimants. In cases where there is significant evidence in support of a claim, however, VA must provide a satisfactory explanation as to why the evidence was not balanced enough to apply the rule if the decision was adverse to the claimant.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

What Veterans Must Know About Duty Requirements In Processing VA Disability Claims

Duty to Assist

In requiring the VA benefits system to be a “non-adversarial” process, Congress has imposed on VA a “duty to assist” claimants. The most significant VA duties are discussed below. In general, VA is required to notify a claimant of what information is required to obtain an award of the benefits requested. VA also has a duty to obtain a veteran’s service records, service medical records, VA treatment records, and any other government records (such as Social Security Administration records) that reasonably may contain information supporting the claim. These duties significantly ease the burden on claimants in assembling the evidence needed to support a claim.

The duty to assist, however, does not mean a claimant has no responsibility for his or her claim. Even if a claim satisfies the minimum threshold for the duty to assist to apply, the law requires VA only to “assist” a veteran with the development of the evidence in support of his or her claim: there are limits on what VA has to do to help a veteran. A claimant seeking a benefit, still has a responsibility to be an active participant in the claims process if he or she wants to be successful.

VA has other duties that can be helpful to claimants in certain circumstances. If an award is made, VA has a duty to look for ways to maximize the benefit paid to a claimant based on the evidence. This means that VA has to consider all the possible diagnostic codes that could apply and base an award on the code or codes that result in the highest payment. VA also has to identify and grant awards for “inferred” claims, which are claims that the evidence supports but the claimant did not specifically request. Both of these duties make it easier for veterans to receive the greatest benefit possible without having to be an expert in VA law.

A claimant also needs to keep in mind that, the duty to assist aside, VA also has responsibilities to follow the law and to prevent improper awards. As a practical matter, this means that the system eventually becomes “adversarial” when VA decides that an award cannot be granted. Further, the huge backlog of claims has strained VA’s resources and continues to result in a high rate of errors. For these reasons, claimants should remain actively involved in their claims and maintain a healthy skepticism of VA decisions throughout the process to avoid a wrongful denial.

Duty to Provide Notice

A claimant has an initial responsibility to file a substantially complete application. If he or she does not do so, VA does not have to process the application. VA does, however, have a “duty to notify” the claimant of the information needed to make the application complete enough to process.

Although exactly what makes an application substantially complete is not defined, VA usually requires at least the following minimum information for a substantially complete application: (1) claimant’s name and, if not the veteran, the relationship to the veteran upon whom the application is based; (2) the medical condition(s) claimed; and (3) the claimants signature. Pension claims also require a statement of income before VA will begin processing the claim. Whatever the reason, if VA determines that an application is not substantially complete, VA has to notify the claimant of the information that it believes is needed to complete the application.

Once a substantially complete application has been submitted, VA has a second “duty to notify.” This time VA has to tell the claimant (1) what information is needed to substantiate the claim, (2) what part of that information VA will try to obtain; and (3) what information that the claimant is responsible for providing to VA. Each time a new issue or claim arises, VA has the same duty to notify the claimant of what information is needed and who (VA or claimant) is responsible for obtaining it.

Section 5103A notification requirements cannot be met through a combination of unrelated decisional and postdecisional communications.  Mayfield v. Nicholson, 444 F.3d 1328, 1335 (Fed. Cir. 2006).  Section 5103 requires VCAA notification to be issued “prior to the initial decision of the claim, not afterwards.”  Id. at 1333. 

The Court must assess the Board’s notification analysis as a whole to adequately determine whether a factual finding regarding 38 U.S.C. § 5103(a) notification had been made by the Board in the first instance.  Prickett, 20 Vet. App. at 375-76; Yarbrough v. Nicholson, 21 Vet. App. 512 (2006).  The Court reviews the Board’s determination that VA satisfied its duty to assist under the “clearly erroneous” standard of review.  Nolen v. Gober, 14 Vet. App. 183, 184 (2000).

Duty to Obtain Records

The VA is required to make “reasonable efforts” to obtain a claimant’s military service records, VA medical records, and other pertinent federal records without being asked to do so. If a claimant requests assistance in obtaining records from private physicians and hospitals, VA is required to try to obtain those records as well. However, VA is not required to continue to request or wait for records if it determines that the records do not exist or further efforts to obtain the records would be futile. In addition, VA will not pay for obtaining private medical records.

As a practical matter, VA usually can obtain records from government agencies and the military without significant problems. There are situations, however, where VA does not properly request documents or the documents have been lost or destroyed by another agency. VA must inform a claimant of its failure to obtain relevant records. A claimant can and should submit his or her copy of relevant documents even if VA is technically responsible for obtaining the information because the lack of relevant information can result in denial of an otherwise valid claim.

“The Secretary shall make reasonable efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate the claimant’s claim for a benefit under a law administered by the Secretary.”  38 U.S.C. § 5103A(a)(1).  Gardner v. Shinseki, 22 Vet. App. 415, 421 (2009) (“Accordingly, the Secretary’s duty to assist applies to all claimants, regardless of whether they have established veteran status.”).  VA is statutorily required to “make as many requests as are necessary” to obtain a veteran’s relevant service records in the custody of a Federal department or agency.  38 C.F.R. § 3.159(c)(2); see Moore v. Shinseki, 555 F.3d 1369, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2009); see also Murincsak v. Derwinski, 2 Vet. App. 363, 373 (1992) (“There is a continuing obligation upon the VA to assist the veteran in developing the facts of his claim throughout the entire administrative adjudication.”).

Upon receipt of a complete or substantially complete application for benefits and prior to an initial unfavorable decision on a claim by an agency of original jurisdiction, the Secretary is required to inform the claimant of the information and evidence not of record that:

(1)   is necessary to substantiate the claim,

(2)   the Secretary will seek to obtain, if any, and

(3)   the claimant is expected to provide, if any, and to request that the claimant provide any evidence in his possession that pertains to the claim.  

See 38 U.S.C. § 5103(a); Pelegrini v. Principi, 18 Vet. App. 112, 119, 121 (2004); Quartuccio v. Principi, 16 Vet. App. 183, 187 (2002); 38 C.F.R. § 3.159(b). This duty includes making “reasonable efforts to obtain relevant records (including private records) that the claimant adequately identifies to the Secretary and authorizes the Secretary to obtain.”  38 U.S.C. § 5103A(b)(1).  If the Secretary is unable to obtain all of the records sought, the Secretary must provide notice to the claimant that “identif[ies] the records that the Secretary was unable to obtain,” “briefly explain[s] the efforts that the Secretary made to obtain those records,” and “describe[s] any further action to be taken by the Secretary with respect to the claim.” 38 U.S.C. § 5103A(b)(2).  These requirements also apply to private documents. 

But, the “duty to assist in the development and adjudication of a claim is not a one-way street.”  Wamhoff v. Brown, 8 Vet. App. 517, 522 (1996).  VA’s duty to assist includes making “reasonable efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate the claimant’s claim for a benefit.”  38 U.S.C. §§  5103A(a)(1), (b); cf.  The Board’s determination whether VA fulfilled its duty to assist generally is a finding of fact that the Court reviews under the “clearly erroneous” standard of review.  See Nolen v. Gober, 14 Vet. App. 183, 184 (2000); Gilbert v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 49, 52 (1990). 

Duty to Obtain Lost or Missing Records

VA’s duty in cases involving lost records is to seek out alternative sources for obtaining the lost records.  Cromer v. Nicholson, 455 F.3d 1346, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2006).  Pursuant to 38 U.S.C. section 5103A, the Secretary is required to “make reasonable efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate the claimant’s claim for benefits.”  38 U.S.C. §§ 5103A(a), (b). Where a claimant’s records are lost or destroyed, VA has a “heightened” duty to assist the claimant that includes advising him that his records were lost, advising him to submit alternative forms of evidence to support his claim, and assisting him in obtaining his alternative evidence.  Washington v. Nicholson, 19 Vet. App. 362, 370 (2005); Dixon v. Derwinski, 3 Vet. App. 261, 263 (1992). 

However, the Court cannot grant an appellant’s claim solely because his records were lost because that remedy “would amount to a judicial amendment of the statutory duty to assist-a measure beyond the power of this court.”  Id. at 1351.  A veteran bears the burden of showing error on this issue.  See Hilkert v. West, 12 Vet. App. 145, 151 (1999) (holding that the appellant bears the burden of demonstrating error); Berger v. Brown, 10 Vet. App. 166, 169 (1997) (holding that an appellant “always bears the burden of persuasion on appeals to this Court”).

When medical records are lost, it warrants a heightened duty by the Secretary and the Board to assist and explain the Board’s findings.  See Vazquez-Flores, supra; see also Cromer v. Nicolson, 455 F.3d 1346, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2006) (“[I]n cases involving lost records, the Board has a heightened duty to explain its findings.”); Daye v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 512, 515 (2006) (where appellant’s records not available, the duty to assist and fully explain reasons and bases is heightened); Stegall, supra; see also Russo v. Brown, 9 Vet. App. 46, 51 (1996) (holding that the Court’s caselaw establishes a “heightened duty” to assist when the appellant’s medical records have been lost or destroyed); Cuevas v. Principi, 3 Vet. App. 542, 548 (1992) (holding that the Board’s duty to assist a claimant in developing his claim is heightened in cases in which the appellant’s SMRs are lost or destroyed “and includes the obligation to search for alternate medical records”); Moore v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 401, 406 (1991) (holding that VA’s duty to assist is “particularly great in light of the unavailability of the veteran’s exit examination and full Army medical records”).

Duty to Provide Medical Examination 

VA is required to schedule a compensation and pension (C&P) examination for a claimant at the nearest VA medical center unless there is a good reason for not doing so, such as when an expert is required that is not available at the nearest facility or the examination is with a VA medical contractor. VA, however, does not have to provide a medical examination in all cases. The standard for providing a medical examination is usually not difficult to meet. VA, however, can refuse to provide a VA medical examination unless there is some reasonable possibility that an examination will provide information that could be useful in deciding the claim.

In general, to obtain a C&P examination a claimant needs to show a current medical condition, some evidence of potential connection to service, and that available medical evidence is not sufficient to allow a decision on the claim. In other words, the claimant must first provide some reason for VA to believe that a medical examination would be helpful in resolving the claim. A claimant’s own statement that his or her symptoms have continued since service or a previous medical examination report can be enough of a reason.

Should VA schedule a medical examination, a claimant has a duty to report for the examination. In most cases, if the claimant does not show up for an examination, the claim(s) associated with that examination can be denied without further development. There are some reasons for failing to show for a scheduled examination, such as illness or urgent family emergency, that can be excused. Even so, claimants should make every effort to reschedule an examination in advance to avoid problems.

As part of his duty to assist, the Secretary must “make reasonable efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate the claimant’s claim for a benefit” including a medical examination.  38 U.S.C. § 5103A(a)(1).  The Secretary must provide a medical examination or obtain a medical opinion “when such an examination or opinion is necessary to make a decision on the claim.”  38 U.S.C. § 5103A(d)(1).  VA must provide a medical opinion or examination if the information and evidence of record does not contain sufficiently competent medical evidence to decide the claim, but there is:

(1)   competent evidence of a current disability or persistent or recurrent symptoms of a disability;

(2)   evidence establishing that an event, injury, or disease occurred in service or establishing certain diseases manifesting during an applicable presumptive period for which the claimant qualifies; and

(3)   an indication that the disability or persistent or recurrent symptoms of a disability may be associated with the veteran’s service or with another service-connected disability.

McLendon v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 79, 81 (2006); see also 38 C.F.R. § 3.159(c)(4)(i).  The requirement that the evidence indicate that a condition “may be associated” with service establishes a “low threshold.”  McLendon, 20 Vet. App. at 83. 

When deciding whether an examination is necessary, the Secretary shall consider the evidence of record, “taking into consideration all information and lay or medical evidence (including statements of the claimant).”  38 U.S.C. § 5103A(d)(2).  “The Board’s ultimate conclusion that a medical examination is not necessary pursuant to section 5103A(d)(2) is reviewed under the ‘arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law’ standard of review.”  McLendon, 20 Vet. App. at 81.

Generally, section 5103A notice must be given on “all five elements of a claim for service connection,” which include:

 (1) veteran status;

(2)   existence of disability;

(3)   service connection of disability;

(4)   degree of disability; and

(5)   effective date of disability.  

38 U.S.C. § 5103(a); Dingess v. Nicholson, 19 Vet. App. 473, 487 (2006) (consolidated with Hartman v. Nicholson, No. 02-1506), aff’d in part sub nom. Hartman v. Nicholson, 483 F.3d 1311 (Fed.Cir.2007)); see also D’Amico v. West, 209 F.3d 1322, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (noting the five elements of a claim for service connection).

Duty to Identify Inferred Claims

Once VA has gathered all the reasonably obtainable information, including information submitted by the claimant, VA must decide whether or not to grant an award of benefits. In making that decision, VA must consider three other duties owed to the claimant: (1) duty to identify inferred claims, (2) duty to consider all reasonable legal theories, and (3) duty to maximize benefits. In other words, VA has several duties to apply the rules to the facts in a case in whatever way provides the most generous benefits allowed by the law.

These duties do not mean that VA has to look at every possible combination of rules and facts that may be even remotely possible. VA, however, has to review the entire record and apply the applicable provisions of law that are reasonably raised by the evidence. In addition, whether or not new claims are identified, VA must also review the diagnostic codes for the code or combination of codes that results in the highest benefit for the claimant.

Overall, in creating the duty to assist Congress recognized that VA raters are better trained and more experienced with the rules for obtaining benefits than the average claimant. VA must look for claims and grant awards based on all the evidence in the C-file whether or not the claimant asked for the specific benefit. This is a very good reason for claimants to provide as much information as possible when submitting applications or responding to VA requests.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

What Disabled Veterans Must Know About Non-Adversarial System of the Veterans Law

Unique Aspects of Veterans Law

The basic operation of VA is very similar to other federal agencies. The legal requirements that VA must follow are created by Acts of Congress and codified in statutes. The VA Secretary, however, has very broad powers to prescribe the many rules and regulations “necessary or appropriate” to carry out those legal requirements. And, as long as the Secretary’s actions “are consistent” with the laws enacted by Congress, a court will not interfere with VA’s decisions.

Congress, however, has long recognized that veterans have earned special consideration for their service to the country. In recognition of this service, Congress has imposed several special duties and requirements on VA to ease the burden on veterans seeking benefits. Claimants should be aware of these special considerations because they provide a veteran with significant advantages in seeking an award.

There is a “basic principle of the VA claims process that claims will be processed and adjudicated in an informal, nonadversarial atmosphere, and that to ensure a just outcome under this rubric VA will assist claimants in many ways.”  Evans v. Shinseki, 25 Vet. App. 7, 14 (2011); EF v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 324, 326 (1991) (stating that although the arguments made in a VA Form 9 appeal to the Board often frame the nature of that appeal: “there is nothing magical about the statements actually on the Form 9, given the VA’s non-adversarial process.”).  A claimant for VA benefits has avenues to seek redress before the Secretary within the non-adversarial VA system (motions for reconsideration at the Board, motions alleging clear and unmistakable error in Board or VARO decisions, requests for vacation of Board decisions based upon denial of due process, and even requests for equitable relief from the Secretary have long been available).  See 38 U.S.C. §§ 503, 5109A, 7103, 7111; 38 C.F.R. §§ 20.904, 20.1001, 20.1400.  

Unlike other federal benefits systems, such as the Social Security Administration process, the VA claims process is intended to be “non-adversarial, paternalistic, uniquely pro-claimant.” This means that VA is supposed to help claimants with obtaining an award, rather than opposing an award and forcing applicants to “prove” their claims by themselves. This does not mean that a claimant should “file and forget” a claim and expect VA to award a claim without questions, but Congress has removed or reduced many of the most burdensome aspects of obtaining federal benefits for VA claimants.

A significant advantage for veterans seeking benefits is that VA has no formal “pleading” requirements. This eliminates the need for a claimant to identify the specific benefits and the specific legal bases for an award when submitting a claim. Instead, VA claimants only have a general duty to file a “substantially complete” claim.

It is important to keep in mind that, even with the advantages provided by Congress, a VA claimant still has the responsibility to present and support a claim for benefits. This means that an application must provide enough information to allow VA to reasonably attempt to develop a claim to meet the legal requirements for an award. This is not a high threshold, but a claimant must meet it to have VA assist with a claim.

Filing an NOA under section 7266, however, demonstrates the exact opposite intent – a claimant’s intent no longer to pursue his claim for benefits through the Secretary, but instead to take the Secretary to court by seeking a legal review before the Court of the Secretary’s actions on his case.  This separation between VA and the Court was made even more emphatic when Congress passed the Veterans Education and Benefits Expansion Act, Pub. L. No. 107-103, 115 Stat. 976 (Dec. 27, 2001), and removed from section 7266 the requirement for a veteran to “furnish the Secretary with a copy of [an NOA].”  Bobbitt v. Principi, 17 Vet. App. 547, 552-53 (2004).

Filing an appeal to the Court thus is not an action within the “non-adversarial, manifestly pro-claimant veterans’ benefits system.”  Rather, a veteran’s appeal to this Court is the first step in an adversarial process challenging the Secretary’s decision on benefits.  See Forshey v. Principi, 284 F.3d 1335, 1355 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (en banc), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 823, 123 (2002) (“The veterans’ benefits system remains a non-adversarial system when cases are pending before the Veterans’ [sic] Administration.  However, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims’ proceedings are not non-adversarial.”).  Before the Court, the Secretary becomes a represented appellee in an appellate court adversarial proceeding.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency