Justia Health Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals
Gilbert v. Shinseki
Gilbert served in the Navy. His reported medical history upon entry into service revealed no psychiatric defects. After leaving service, Gilbert was diagnosed with major depression and required treatment for psychiatric illness and alcohol dependence. Gilbert acknowledged that he experienced depressive episodes and suicidal ideation throughout his life, that he has been abusing drugs and alcohol since he was a teenager, and that he continued to abuse alcohol while in the Navy. Gilbert sought compensation for psychiatric disability and other conditions with the VA. Multiple psychiatric examinations produced conflicting opinions. The VA denied service connection; the Board affirmed. The statutory “[p]resumption of sound condition” was applicable because no psychiatric condition was noted upon entry into service, 38 U.S.C. 1111; to rebut the presumption, the government had to provide clear and unmistakable evidence demonstrating that the disease existed before enrollment and was not aggravated by service. Based on Gilbert’s acknowledged history, the Board concluded that the government proved that his psychiatric illness pre-existed enrollment, but that the government failed to establish that Gilbert’s “pre-existing depression was not aggravated by active service,” and did not rebut the presumption of soundness. The Board nevertheless denied service connection, concluding that Gilbert failed to prove that his post-service psychiatric conditions “were correlated to [his] military experiences.” The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed. View "Gilbert v. Shinseki" on Justia Law
Bowers v. Shinseki
Bowers served in the Army National Guard 1972-1978, with a continuous period of active duty for training from August 1972 to February 1973. His records do not reflect that he incurred any injury or disease during service. In 2009, shortly after his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), Bowers sought benefits for ALS and secondary conditions. A VA Regional Office denied the claim, finding that his ALS was not incurred or aggravated in service. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals rejected his argument that he was entitled to presumptive service connection for ALS under 38 C.F.R. 3.318, noting that reserve duty and active duty for training of the type Bowers performed does not generally entitle an individual to evidentiary presumptions. While his appeal to the Veterans Court was pending, Bowers died and his wife was substituted as the appellant. The Veterans Court affirmed, finding that Bowers did not achieve “veteran status,” and was not entitled to presumptive service connection. The Federal Circuit affirmed. View "Bowers v. Shinseki" on Justia Law
LaLonde v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs.
M.L. was born in 2003. At his 15-month well-child visit, his pediatrician noted that M.L. was walking and generally developing normally but did not “want to talk.” In 2005, M.L. received several immunizations, including the DTaP vaccination. Hours later, M.L. allegedly began experiencing an abnormally high fever and swelling. He was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of “vaccine adverse reaction with secondary fever, angiodema, and anaphylactoid reaction.” The morning after his discharge, M.L.’s mother called an ambulance because M.L. was exhibiting signs of hypothermia and seizure-like episodes. In the months that followed, M.L.’s vocabulary allegedly decreased. An MRI of M.L.’s brain with and without contrast was normal. After observing M.L.’s developmental delays and repetitive behaviors, a pediatric neurologist placed M.L. in the autism spectrum disorder category. A special master rejected claims under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, 42 U.S.C. 300aa-1 to -34, and the Claims Court affirmed. The Federal Circuit affirmed. While the DTaP vaccination likely caused the initial anaphylactic reaction, there was no reliable medical theory that the M.L.’s anaphylaxis caused a focal brain injury. View "LaLonde v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs." on Justia Law
Stallworth v. Shinseki
Stallworth served in the U.S. Army, 1974-1975, during which time he experienced a psychotic episode that was attributed to his illicit use of the drug LSD. He recovered with hospitalization, but relapsed following return to active duty and was diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia. A treating physician noted that it was not clear whether Stallworth’s illness was caused by his drug use or by independent psychosis. An Army medical board found him unfit for further military duty. Weeks later, a VA Regional Office awarded Stallworth service connection for schizophrenia at a 50% disability rating. Thereafter, Stallworth was often admitted to inpatient psychiatric facilities where medical professionals repeatedly opined that he had “no mental disorder” and that Stallworth’s service connection diagnosis was in error. The VA severed Stallworth’s service connection on the basis of clear and unmistakable error (CUE) and declined to reopen his claim because of a lack of new evidence. In 1981, the Appeals Board affirmed. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed. View "Stallworth v. Shinseki" on Justia Law
Dixon v. Shinseki
Dixon served in the Army, 1979-1992, including as a chemical operations specialist in the Persian Gulf, where he was exposed to pyridostigmine and “encountered smoke from oil fires, diesel, and burning trash,” and had “cutaneous exposure [to] diesel and petrochemical fuel.” In 2003, Dixon was diagnosed with sarcoid lungs and transverse myelitis, which left him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. He sought service-connected disability benefits. In 2004 a VA regional office denied Dixon’s claim. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals affirmed, Dixon filed a pro se notice of appeal, 60 days after the 120-day filing deadline, 38 U.S.C. 7266(a). The Veterans Court dismissed, concluding that it was “without jurisdiction.” In 2011 the Supreme Court held that the filing deadline is not jurisdictional. The Veterans Court issued an order allowing Dixon and others to move to recall the dismissals. Still acting pro se, Dixon sought equitable tolling, explaining that he suffered from physical and psychiatric disabilities that prevented him from filing in a timely manner, accompanied by a statement from his psychiatrist. The Veterans Court denied Dixon’s motion. Attorneys subsequently agreed to represent Dixon. The Veterans Court allowed until October 4, 2012 to move for reconsideration. The VA refused to provide a copy of the file and the earliest available appointment for reviewing the file was October 1. On that dated, VA staff monitored the review and declined requests for copies of documents. The Federal Circuit reversed the denial of an extension, stating that the disability compensation system is not meant as a trap for the unwary, or a stratagem to deny compensation to a veteran who has a valid claim.View "Dixon v. Shinseki" on Justia Law
Prinkey v. Shinseki
Prinkey served in the Army, 1969 to 1970, including time in Vietnam. He was diagnosed with diabetes in 1996. Diabetes mellitus type II is presumed to be service connected if the veteran was exposed to Agent Orange, 38 U.S.C. 1116(a)(2)(H) (2002). In 2003, the VA received Prinkey’s claim for benefits on account of his diabetes, asserting exposure to Agent Orange. The VA Regional Office grantedservice connection for diabetes, evaluated at 20%, and lesser rated service connection for other disabilities secondary to diabetes. Prinkey sought to reopen his claim. During reexamination, the VA concluded that his diabetes more likely than not resulted from the surgery that removed most of his pancreas following years of alcohol abuse, not from his exposure to Agent Orange. Ultimately the Board of Veterans’ Appeals sustained severance of service connection for diabetes and related disabilities and denied entitlement to a total disability rating based on individual unemployability. The Veterans Court affirmed. The Federal Circuit affirmed. Under 38 C.F.R. 3.105(d) “service connection will be severed only where evidence establishes that it is clearly and unmistakably erroneous; the VA may consider medical evidence and diagnoses that postdate the original award of service connection. View "Prinkey v. Shinseki" on Justia Law
Tembenis v. Sec’y of Health & Humans Servs.
At age four months, Elias received a Diptheria-Tetanus-acellular-Pertussis (DTaP) vaccine. Elias developed a seizure disorder shortly afterwards. While a petition for compensation under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, 42 U.S.C. 300aa-1, was pending, Elias died as a result of his seizure disorder at the age of seven. A special master determined that the DTaP vaccine caused Elias’ epilepsy and resulting death. The Secretary of Health and Human Services and the estate agreed to a $250,000 death benefit plus $175,000 for actual pain and suffering and past unreimbursable expenses. The estate also sought future lost earnings under section 300aa-15(a)(3)(B). The special master determined that the estate was entitled to future lost earnings. Subject to the right to seek review, the Secretary proffered, and the estate accepted the sum of $659,955.61 as a measure of the lost earnings. The Claims Court affirmed the special master’s future lost earnings award. The Federal Circuit reversed, holding that an estate cannot recover lost future earnings under section 300aa-15(a)(3)(B) when the person injured by a vaccine dies before entry of a compensation judgment. View "Tembenis v. Sec'y of Health & Humans Servs." on Justia Law
Carson v. Sec’y, Health & Human Servs.
Kit Carson was born in May 1996, and received numerous vaccinations during his first year of life. At his 18-month and 24-month check-ups, Kit’s pediatricians noted that his speech was delayed. Following his three-year check-up, Kit was referred for evaluation and diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2001. His parents sought compensation under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, 42 U.S.C. 300aa, in 2002. A Special Master concluded that the first symptoms of Kit’s disorder were recorded in May 1999 and that the claim was not filed within the 36-month limitations period. The Federal Circuit affirmed, rejecting an argument that speech delay cannot be a “first symptom” because it is an insufficient basis for a diagnosis of autism. View "Carson v. Sec'y, Health & Human Servs." on Justia Law
Middleton v. Shinseki
Middleton served on active duty from 1964 until 1990. He first sought compensation for type II diabetes mellitus in 2001. In 2002, a VA Regional Office granted service connection, assigning a disability rating of 20 percent under 38 C.F.R. 4.119. In 2009 Middleton was denied an increased rating after a VA physical examination. During his appeal, Middleton was treated with three oral hypoglycemic agents and daily injections of the drug Byetta®. In 2010, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals again denied a rating increase despite Middleton’s assertions that his diet was restricted, his activities were regulated, and he used an oral hypoglycemic agent, based on the fact that he did n not use insulin to regulate his diabetes. The Board stated that use of insulin is a necessary element for the 40-percent rating. The Veterans Court affirmed the denial. The Federal Circuit affirmed, stating it lacked jurisdiction to review the Veterans Court’s application of the regulations to the facts and that the Veterans Court did not err in interpreting the governing regulations View "Middleton v. Shinseki" on Justia Law
Massie v. Shinseki
Massie served on active duty in the Army, 1968-1970 and was awarded VA benefits for varicose veins and related surgery, initially at 10% and increased to 50%, disability effective in 1990. In, 2001, Massie sought an increased disability rating. He submitted a letter from a VA physician who had treated Massie for “multiple medical problems” including “chronic venous insufficiency” that had “persisted in spite of prior surgical treatment with vein stripping” and that left Massie with significant pain when he was on his feet for any period of time. The regional office increased Massie’s rating to 100%, as of the 2001 date of his filing. The Veterans Court determined that the physician’s letter, dated 1999, did not qualify as an informal claim that would entitle Massie to an earlier effective date for the 100% rating. The Federal Circuit affirmed that the letter was not a “report of examination” because it did not describe the results of a “specific, particular examination” and did not suggest that Massie’s condition had worsened. View "Massie v. Shinseki" on Justia Law