On Wednesday the Federal Circuit issued its opinion in Sellers v. Wilkie, another case we have been tracking because it attracted an amicus brief. In the opinion, a Federal Circuit panel (including Judges Dyk, Clevenger, and Hughes) unanimously reversed and remanded the lower court’s ruling granting benefits to a veteran. Here is a summary of the opinion.
As explained in our argument preview and argument recap, the government argued in this appeal that the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims “invoked a new rule of law to set aside a Board of Veteran’s Appeals decision denying an earlier effective date of the award of service connection.” According to the government, this new rule is that, “if a claimant submits a generalized statement requesting benefits, VA must search through the claimant’s records and determine whether additional conditions were claimed based on ‘reasonably identifiable’ diagnoses in the record.” The government claims that this new rule “conflicts with existing law.” This case reached the Federal Circuit following a judgment in favor of Sellers that granting him benefits. On appeal, an amicus brief was filed in support of Sellers.
Judge Clevenger wrote the opinion for the panel, which reversed and remanded. In the introduction of the opinion, the court described the relevant facts:
Robert M. Sellers served honorably in the U.S. Navy from April 1964 until February 1968, and in the U.S. Army from January 1981 to February 1996. Mr. Sellers currently suffers from major depressive disorder (“MDD”). As a practical matter, this case involves Mr. Sellers’ attempt to establish an earlier effective date than the one currently assigned to him for the compensation he receives due to his current MDD condition. Mr. Sellers has an effective date of September 18, 2009. He seeks an effective date of March 11, 1996 . . . . In a space on his formal application labeled “Remarks,” Mr. Sellers wrote “Request for s/c [service connection] for disabilities occurring during active duty service.” Mr. Sellers contends that the law in effect in 1996 requires his remarks to be understood as a formal claim for compensation for his MDD, even though his claim in no way refers to MDD, and thus affords him the earlier effective date of his 1996 formal claim.
The government presented the issue of whether a claimant’s general statement requesting benefits on a formal claim form that identifies specific disabilities constitutes a claim for all “reasonably identifiable” diagnoses within the claimant’s records.
The Court agreed with the government:
The Secretary of Veterans Affairs challenges the Veterans Court’s decision, arguing that a legally sufficient formal claim must identify, at least at a high level of generality, the current condition upon which the veteran’s claim for benefits is based. For the reasons set forth below, we agree with the Secretary. Accordingly, Mr. Sellers is not entitled to the earlier effective date he requests.
The Federal Circuit began its analysis by addressing the arguments made before the Veterans Court. It recited Mr. Sellers’ argument that the “language in his pro se filing should be sympathetically read to require the VA to ‘grant all possible benefits.’” It then pointed out that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs cited the correct statement of the law from Brokowski v. Shinseki, 23 Vet. App. 79, 84 (2009): “The essential requirements of any claim, whether formal or informal” are: “(1) an intent to apply for benefits, (2) an indication of the benefits sought, and (3) a communication in writing.” According to the Federal Circuit, “the Veterans Court did not decide that Mr. Sellers filed a sufficient formal claim for a psychiatric disability in March 1996. Instead, the Veterans Court created a new legal test for determination of whether a general statement of intent to seek benefits for unspecified disabilities will suffice as a sufficient formal claim.”
After establishing jurisdiction over the case, the court agreed with the arguments made by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs “that the relevant statutes, regulations, and judicial precedent require that a veteran’s legally sufficient claim provide information, even at ‘a high level of generality,’ . . . to identify the sickness, disease, or injury for which benefits are sought.”
The Federal Circuit, in turn, rejected Sellers’ arguments. The court, for example, said that his view would require the Secretary “not only to fully develop the specified condition but also to search the veteran’s records to identify and fully develop any additional claim the record may support.” The court restated that “the Secretary’s duty to assist begins upon receipt of a formal claim that identifies the medical condition for which benefits are sought,” which “triggers the Secretary’s duty to obtain the veteran’s medical records . . . and then to develop fully the stated claim.” Because Sellers’ March 1996 filing made no reference to a claim for benefits related to a psychiatric condition, the Secretary did not have a duty to develop a claim for MDD, the court explained. The court reasoned that, “[u]ntil the Secretary comprehends the current condition on which the claim is based, the Secretary does not know where to begin to develop the claim to its optimum.” Therefore, the court concluded, identification of the condition is necessary to initiate the duty to develop the claim.
As a result of its analysis, the Federal Circuit reversed the decision of the Veterans Court and remanded the case to the Veterans Court for entry of judgment against Sellers.