Argument Preview

This week we are previewing three arguments scheduled for next week at the Federal Circuit. We are previewing these arguments because the underlying cases attracted amicus briefs. Today we highlight LaBonte v. United States, a veterans case where LaBonte is challenging a “Court of Federal Claims decision that military correction boards established under 10 U.S.C. § 1552 may not grant disability retirement to service members whose ‘Certificate of Release or Discharge From Active Duty,’ a standard separation document known as a ‘DD-214’ form, contains reference to a court martial.” Two amicus briefs were filed in support of the plaintiff-appellant, LaBonte, one by Military Law Practitioners and another a joint brief by the National Veterans Legal Services Program and Protect Our Defenders. This is our argument preview.

In his opening brief, the plaintiff-appellant argues “[t]he trial court erred in holding that Mr. LaBonte did not state a claim for which relief can be granted.” LaBonte maintains the Army Board for Correction of Military Records has “broad remedial authority under § 1552(a), which allows for the correction of military records when necessary to correct an error or remove an injustice.” According to LaBonte, this authority includes “granting retroactive disability retirement,” and in particular “nothing in statute or regulation prevents the Board from granting Mr. LaBonte’s retirement claim and changing his DD-214 to reflect that retirement status.” Alternatively, LaBonte contends, “even if the prohibition in § 1552(f) encompassed correcting a DD-214, which it does not, the Board still would have the authority to grant disability retirement to Mr. LaBonte because no statute or regulation requires that the Board amend the ‘Narrative Reason for Separation’ on his DD-214 to grant his requested relief.”

In its response brief, the United States argues “[t]he trial court properly dismissed Mr. LaBonte’s challenge to the ABCMR’s denial of its claim for disability retirement, pursuant to RCFC 12(b)(6), based upon a comprehensive analysis of the plain meaning of 10 U.S.C. § 1552(f).” The government contends that, “[i]n challenging the trial court’s decision, Mr. LaBonte fails to establish any error in the trial court’s interpretation of subsection 1552(f).” As to LaBonte’s alternative argument, the United States argues “Mr. LaBonte’s alternative interpretation is unsupported by the statutory text, and none of the arguments that he raises undermines the trial court’s thorough analysis.” The United States also contends the “amicus briefs submitted by the Military Law Practitioners and NVLSP likewise do not undermine the trial court’s sound legal analysis.”

In his reply brief, LaBonte maintains its position that “10 U.S.C. § 1552(f) does not alter the Secretary’s broad statutory authority, exercised through the Board, to correct Mr. LaBonte’s DD-214.” LaBonte contends this is so because the statute grants the “Secretary the broad authority to ‘correct any military record’ when necessary to ‘correct an error or remove an injustice.’”

As mentioned, an amicus brief was filed by a group calling themselves Military Law Practitioners. They contend the Court of Federal Claims decision “reflects both a fundamental misconception of the purpose of Section 1552(f) and of the relationship (or lack thereof) between DD-214 and the court-martial system.” They argue “[i]ncluding DD-214 within the scope of Section 1552(f) would prevent the Board from accomplishing its congressionally mandated purpose to correct errors and do justice.” As a result, they argue, “[t]his Court should reverse the Court of Federal Claims’ ruling, which is directly contrary to congressional intent.”

As also mentioned, the National Veterans Legal Services Program and Protect Our Defenders also filed an amicus brief. They note, first, the significant role the DD-214 form has in lives of veterans. Further, they argue that “[r]estricting the boards’ authority to change a DD-214 that references a court-martial would be contrary to law, DOD guidance, and established practice.” The National Veterans Legal Services Program and Protect Our Defenders argue, moreover, that affirming the lower court’s decision will “create or exacerbate irrational and unfair disparate impacts among similarly situated former service members.”

This case will be argued on Monday, April 4. We will report on developments.