Last month, the court heard oral argument in 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. Judges Chen, Schall, and Stoll heard the argument. This is our argument recap.
Alexander Fisher argued for LaBonte. Fisher first discussed § 1552(f) and argued that the DD-214 form is not “captured” at all under this statute and therefore no changes need to be made to the form for the Court to grant relief. Judge Chen asked Fisher to walk through the statute. Fisher noted that the statute was meant to be limited to the altering of court martial documents. Judge Stoll asked for a textual approach to be undertaken by Fisher as to what exactly are documents of court martial versus related documents of court martial. Fisher explained that substantive documents of the proceeding would be covered under the statute, and argued this is backed up by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Fisher continued by arguing that the purpose of the statute is ensure that all documents related to the court martial proceeding are not changed in the future, and he maintained that this impacts the definition of what is encompassed as part of the related documents. Fisher argued a DD-214 form would not fall under the documents related to the military justice proceeding, and instead is just a summary form completed by the Department of Defense for all service members.
Fisher pointed out that, here, the underlying conviction remains in place and is identified in a personnel file, but LaBonte’s sentence was stopped as a result of clemency. Fisher, moreover, pointed out that the sentence, rather than the conviction, is the information identified on the DD-214 form. And, he argued, given that § 1552(a) grants the court the ability to fix injustice or errors to this form, the Federal Circuit could alter the DD-214 to reflect the clemency granted.
Richard Schroeder argued for United States. Judges Stoll and Schall asked him under what authority the government argues that the DD-214 form must be amended before disability retirement can be awarded to a veteran. Judge Schall specifically asked why the DD-214 needs to be changed if it just follows the lead of other underlying documents. Schroeder responded by arguing that the statute limits the ability to grant relief because this is a record correction case and there is no injustice to correct when the conviction by court martial is truthfully identified on the form. Judge Schall asked how the government’s position would work with documents not administratively related to a court martial, such as medical records. Schroder contended this is a narrow case and agreed those documents may not be impacted by the statute.
Judge Schall asked about the difference in approach taken by the Navy and Air Force Boards, which have allowed corrections to DD-214 forms, and if the government is disavowing those decisions. Schroeder argued that the government disagreed with those Boards and thought the Army in this case had interpreted the statute correctly. Judges Chen and Stoll then asked about the government’s interpretation, and Schroeder argued for a wide interpretation that would include all related documents, not just those produced by the criminal justice system.
David Herman argued in rebuttal that, fundamentally, LaBonte is seeking benefits and not change of a form. Herman argued that the government did not provide a single authority requiring a change of a form for disability benefits to be granted. Judge Schall then asked what the proper process would be if the court ruled that altering the form was not required for benefits. Herman responded by arguing that the court would effectively require the start of the disability retirement process. Herman also noted his interpretation of 1552(f) cabined “related administrative records pertaining to court-martial cases” to documents related the criminal justice systems or produced by a clerk’s office. Therefore, he argued, the DD-214, given that it is similar to a human resources document, is outside of § 1552(f).
We will continue to monitor the case and report on any developments.