Opinions / Panel Activity

The Federal Circuit issued an opinion in late February in a case that attracted an amicus brief, Beaudette v. McDonough. This is a veterans case in which the Federal Circuit reviewed whether the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims erred in issuing a writ of mandamus to allow the Board of Veterans’ Appeals to hear appeals of adverse decisions pertaining to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. In an opinion authored by Chief Judge Moore that was joined by Judges Dyk and Stoll, the Federal Circuit affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The Federal Circuit held that the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims properly issued the writ of mandamus because the “Beaudettes had no adequate alternative means to obtain the relief requested” and the Board of Veteran’s Appeals “has the authority under 38 C.F.R. § 20.104(c) to determine the types of appeals within its jurisdiction.” This is our opinion summary.

Judge Moore began by highlighting the procedural and factual background of the case:

In 2010, Congress established the Caregiver Program to provide assistance to caregivers of seriously injured combat veterans. . . . In 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) promulgated a final rule implementing the Caregiver Act. . . . The VA explained that all decisions under the Caregiver Act are medical determinations that are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Board. Id. at 1366. The VA noted the statute at 38 U.S.C. § 1720G(c)(1), titled ‘Construction,’ states: ‘A decision by the Secretary under this section affecting the furnishing of assistance or support shall be considered a medical determination.’ Id. The VA explained ‘medical determinations are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals under 38 U.S.C. 7104, or pursuant to our implementing regulation.’ . . . Under the VA’s interpretation, the Caregiver Act deemed all decisions medical determinations, and thus such decisions ‘may not be adjudicated in the standard manner as claims associated with veterans’ benefits.’ . . . Jeremy Beaudette served in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2012, including five combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Beaudette suffered multiple concussions, resulting in traumatic brain injury and rendering him legally blind. . . Mr. Beaudette and his wife Maya Beaudette (collectively, the Beaudettes) applied for Caregiver Program benefits in March 2013. The VA found them eligible based on Mr. Beaudette’s inability to perform activities of daily living and his substantial need for supervision and protection. . . In February 2018, the VA notified the Beaudettes they were no longer eligible for Caregiver Program benefits. The Beaudettes appealed the VA’s decision through the VA Clinical Appeals process. . . . The Board issued no decision in response, nor did the Board dismiss the Notice of Disagreement for lack of jurisdiction. Nearly a year later in July 2020, the Beaudettes filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Veterans Court . . .  In April 2021, a majority of a three-judge panel granted the Beaudettes’ petition and certified the request for a class. . . . The majority disagreed with the Secretary’s position that the phrase “medical determination” in § 1720G(c)(1) is a direct reference to a longstanding VA rule, 38 C.F.R. § 20.104(b), excluding medical determinations from Board review. Id. at 101 (citing 38 U.S.C. §§ 511(a), 7252(a)), 103. Under the canons of statutory construction, the majority concluded the Secretary did not meet his burden to overcome the strong presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action.

Judge Moore emphasized how the focus in this case is “whether the term ‘medical determination’ precludes Board (and judicial) review of all Caregiver Program decisions.” She explained there are multiple reasons that 38 U.S.C. § 1720G(c)(1) “only bars judicial review of Caregiver Program decisions on the furnishing of assistance or support.”

Judge Moore emphasized that judicial review of agency actions is strongly favored, and this presumption is overcome only if “the statute’s language or structure demonstrates that Congress wanted an agency to police its own conduct.” Judge Moore explained that, based on the history of the Veterans Court, “Congress knew how to limit judicial review, including the jurisdiction of the Board, when it passed the Caregiver Act in 2010.” Furthermore, she noted, “Congress did not express an intent to prohibit judicial review of all decisions in the plain language of § 1720G(c)(1).”

Despite the plain language of the statute not prohibiting judicial review, Judge Moore explained that the “Secretary argues Congress intended for all Caregiver Program decisions to be exempt from Board review.” Judge Moore, in particular, disagreed with the Secretary’s argument that “’medical determination’ is a reference to the VA’s regulation precluding Board review of medical determinations, which demonstrates Congress’ intent to exclude them from Board review.” Judge Moore emphasized that the Secretary’s argument is based on VA regulations issued prior to the Act that established the appellate jurisdiction of the Board.

Judge Moore also noted that, in terms of the Caregiver Program, “Congress chose to limit the regulation’s applicability to only decisions ‘affecting the furnishing of assistance or support.’” She explained now this language only “excepts” decisions relating to the need for “specific types of medical care and treatment, which are properly considered medical determinations.” According to Judge Moore, judicial review over benefits is not precluded. Furthermore, she explained, the “VA regulation excludes from Board review a narrow type of medical determination that is essential to VA’s authority to prescribe specific types of medical care or treatment.”

According to Judge Moore, “the Board has the authority to determine the types of Caregiver Program decisions that fall within its jurisdiction.” In this case, however, she emphasized how the Beaudettes “were deemed ineligible partially because Mr. Beaudette was not available for an in-person evaluation,” and that this was a procedural issue and not a medical determination.  As a result, she explained, the Board has “authority to review the Beaudettes’ decision based on the interpretation of the statute and the VA regulation.”

Judge Moore also rejected the Secretary’s argument that the “Beaudettes had no adequate alternative means to obtain the relief requested.”

In sum, the Federal Circuit held that “the Beaudettes and other similarly situated veterans and caregivers have an indisputable right to judicial review of Caregiver Program decisions that do not affect the furnishing of support or assistance” and the “Board has the authority under 38 C.F.R. § 20.104(c) to determine the types of appeals within its jurisdiction.”