Last week, the Federal Circuit issued its opinion in LaBonte v. United States, a case we have been following because it attracted an amicus brief. In this case, LaBonte filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims to challenge a denial by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records of his claim for a retroactive medical retirement. The Court of Federal Claims, however, dismissed Mr. LaBonte’s claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, reasoning that the Board did not have authority to grant LaBonte the relief he was seeking. In an opinion authored by Judge Schall and joined by Judges Chen and Stoll, the Federal Circuit reversed and remanded the case. This is our opinion summary.
Judge Schall presented the facts of the case:
Appellant, Robert J. LaBonte, Jr., is a veteran who served in the United States Army. In 2006, he went absent without leave (“AWOL”) for six months. After he voluntarily returned to his base, he pleaded guilty to a charge of desertion in a court-martial proceeding and was separated from the Army with a Bad Conduct Discharge.
In 2015, Mr. LaBonte applied to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records (“ABCMR” or “Board”), seeking retroactive medical retirement. He alleged that, while in the Army, he had had a permanent disability resulting from post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), traumatic brain injury (“TBI”), depression, and anxiety incurred during service. He also alleged that these disabilities had rendered him unfit for service prior to his absence without leave, his court-martial, and his discharge. In 2018, the Board denied his claim.
Mr. LaBonte then filed suit in the United States Court of Federal Claims challenging the ABCMR decision. On December 3, 2019, the court remanded the case to the Board for further proceedings. On April 29, 2020, on remand, the Board again denied Mr. LaBonte’s claim for disability retirement. J.A. 2763–65. Subsequently, with the case back before the Court of Federal Claims, Mr. LaBonte challenged the ABCMR’s April 2020 decision and moved for judgment on the administrative record. The government renewed a previous motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and, in addition, cross-moved for judgment on the administrative record.
On October 30, 2020, the Court of Federal Claims granted the government’s motion to dismiss. The court determined that, in order for the ABCMR to grant Mr. LaBonte disability retirement, the Board would have to correct Mr. LaBonte’s DD-214 Form (“DD-214”) to show that he was separated due to physical disability rather than due to a court-martial conviction. Concluding that a statute, 10 U.S.C. § 1552(f), prohibited the Board from correcting Mr. LaBonte’s DD-214 in this manner, the court held that the Board was without authority to grant Mr. LaBonte the relief he was seeking. Pursuant to RCFC 12(b)(6), it therefore dismissed Mr. LaBonte’s claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, without reaching the merits of his challenge to the Board’s decision.
Mr. LaBonte now appeals the Court of Federal Claims’ dismissal of his complaint. For the reasons set forth below, we hold that the Court of Federal Claims erred in holding that the ABCMR lacked authority to grant the relief Mr. LaBonte is seeking. The court therefore erred in dismissing his complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
In the Federal Circuit’s opinion, Judge Schall explains that the court agrees with “LaBonte that the ABCMR was not required to change his DD-214 in order to grant him disability retirement.” Judge Schall explains how “the pertinent statutory language” is “is broad and unqualified.” Indeed, after examining the relevant statute and regulations, the court concludes “that it is not necessary for the Board to alter Mr. LaBonte’s DD-214 in order to grant him disability retirement.” As a result, the Federal Circuit held “that the Court of Federal Claims erred in ruling that it was necessary.”
The Federal Circuit explains that “a DD-214 is not a part of, or a product of, a court-martial itself, nor does it have a legal impact on a finding or sentence of a court-martial.” The opinion goes on to clarify that, “regardless of what his DD-214 says, [LaBonte’s] conviction will not be removed from his underlying military records, nor could it be under 10 U.S.C. § 1552(f).” Importantly, however, “that is not what [he] seeks.” Rather, LaBonte “seeks the opportunity to obtain disability retirement benefits for his PTSD and TBI.”
In short, in this case the Federal Circuit holds that “§ 1552(f) does not prohibit changing [a veteran’s] DD-214 in order for it to be accurate and complete” should the veteran later be awarded disability benefits.
As a result of its analysis, the Federal Circuit reversed the decision of the Court of Federal Claims and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the Federal Circuit’s opinion.