Monday, December 15, 2014

Martin v. McDonald

Martin v. McDonald, 761 F.3d 1366 (August 5, 2014)
Held: Alcohol abuse cannot always be characterized as willful misconduct, and “it is legal error to rule that willful misconduct is present without an inquiry into and findings about the particular conduct.” 761 F.3d at 1369.

Veteran received an honorable discharge, but the basis of the discharge was “alcohol rehabilitation failure.” He was denied VA education benefits, and the Board upheld the denial “as a matter of law.” Id. at 1368. The CAVC affirmed.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit noted that neither the Board nor the CAVC discussed “any specific acts by Mr. Martin” when they concluded that his discharge was based on “willful misconduct.” Id. at 1369. The Court framed the issue as whether it was legal error for the CAVC to affirm “the Board’s conclusion that Mr. Martin’s discharge rested on ‘willful misconduct’ under 38 U.S.C. § 3011(a)(1)(A)(ii), without specific inquiry into or findings about Mr. Martin’s individual conduct relating to his ‘alcohol rehabilitation failure.’” Id. The Court agreed with Mr. Martin that it was legal error to make such a conclusion “without an inquiry into and findings about the particular conduct.” Id.

The Court discussed the phrase “willful misconduct,” and stated that it required the Board to (1) identify conduct, (2) find that the conduct is misconduct, and (3) find that the misconduct is willful. Id. The Court found that “alcohol rehabilitation failure” cannot always constitute or result from willful misconduct. Id. (“People fail at many things despite their best efforts.”). The Court stated that “[w]ithout more, a finding of an unsuccessful attempt at rehabilitation addresses only a mental state, not misconduct, or willful misconduct.” Id.

The Court noted that three other veterans’ law statutes deny compensation for any condition that is the result of the veteran’s “own willful misconduct or abuse of alcohol or drugs.” Id. at 1371 (citing 38 U.S.C. §§ 105(a), 1110, and 1131). The Court stated that Congress added the phrase “or abuse of alcohol or drugs” to the preexisting willful misconduct language in those three statutes on the same day that it introduced the “willful misconduct” phrase into 38 U.S.C. § 3011. Id. at 1371-72. The Court added that this “underscores that alcohol abuse does not always constitute willful misconduct for purposes of denying basic education-assistance benefits.” Id. at 1372. The Court held that “‘alcohol rehabilitation failure,’ and even alcohol dependence and acts resulting from alcohol dependence, cannot be characterized as being or resulting from willful misconduct in every case,” and remanded for the Board to make factual findings pertinent to this issue.

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