Harris v. Shinseki, docket no. 2012-7111 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 4, 2013)
This case affirms the Federal Circuit’s case law regarding VA’s duty to fully develop and generously construe a pro se veteran’s filings to determine all possible claims raised by the evidence. In this case, the veteran had applied for and was awarded service-connection benefits in 2002. He appealed, arguing for an earlier effective date based a 1985 VA medical examination that included an Agent Orange Registry Code Sheet and an application for medical benefits. The Board held that the 1985 exam was neither a formal nor informal claim for benefits, and denied the appeal. The CAVC affirmed the Board’s decision, finding no clear error in the determination that the 1985 documents did not constitute a claim.
The Federal Circuit found that the CAVC did not apply the proper legal standard in reviewing the Board’s decision because there was no indication that the court “acknowledged its obligation to require that the Board generously construe the evidence in this case.” The Federal Circuit acknowledged that the Board “‘considered the applicability of the benefit-of-the-doubt doctrine,’” but noted that the duty to fully and sympathetically develop a veteran’s claim is separate from that doctrine. The duty to fully and sympathetically develop a veteran’s claim to its optimum is placed on VA prior to adjudicating the claim on the merits, whereas “the benefit-of-the-doubt rule assists the VA in deciding a veteran’s claim on the merits after the claim has been fully developed.”