Unique Aspects of Veterans Law
The basic operation of VA is very similar to other federal agencies. The legal requirements that VA must follow are created by Acts of Congress and codified in statutes. The VA Secretary, however, has very broad powers to prescribe the many rules and regulations “necessary or appropriate” to carry out those legal requirements. And, as long as the Secretary’s actions “are consistent” with the laws enacted by Congress, a court will not interfere with VA’s decisions.
Congress, however, has long recognized that veterans have earned special consideration for their service to the country. In recognition of this service, Congress has imposed several special duties and requirements on VA to ease the burden on veterans seeking benefits. Claimants should be aware of these special considerations because they provide a veteran with significant advantages in seeking an award.
There is a “basic principle of the VA claims process that claims will be processed and adjudicated in an informal, nonadversarial atmosphere, and that to ensure a just outcome under this rubric VA will assist claimants in many ways.” Evans v. Shinseki, 25 Vet. App. 7, 14 (2011); EF v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 324, 326 (1991) (stating that although the arguments made in a VA Form 9 appeal to the Board often frame the nature of that appeal: “there is nothing magical about the statements actually on the Form 9, given the VA’s non-adversarial process.”). A claimant for VA benefits has avenues to seek redress before the Secretary within the non-adversarial VA system (motions for reconsideration at the Board, motions alleging clear and unmistakable error in Board or VARO decisions, requests for vacation of Board decisions based upon denial of due process, and even requests for equitable relief from the Secretary have long been available). See 38 U.S.C. §§ 503, 5109A, 7103, 7111; 38 C.F.R. §§ 20.904, 20.1001, 20.1400.
Unlike other federal benefits systems, such as the Social Security Administration process, the VA claims process is intended to be “non-adversarial, paternalistic, uniquely pro-claimant.” This means that VA is supposed to help claimants with obtaining an award, rather than opposing an award and forcing applicants to “prove” their claims by themselves. This does not mean that a claimant should “file and forget” a claim and expect VA to award a claim without questions, but Congress has removed or reduced many of the most burdensome aspects of obtaining federal benefits for VA claimants.
A significant advantage for veterans seeking benefits is that VA has no formal “pleading” requirements. This eliminates the need for a claimant to identify the specific benefits and the specific legal bases for an award when submitting a claim. Instead, VA claimants only have a general duty to file a “substantially complete” claim.
It is important to keep in mind that, even with the advantages provided by Congress, a VA claimant still has the responsibility to present and support a claim for benefits. This means that an application must provide enough information to allow VA to reasonably attempt to develop a claim to meet the legal requirements for an award. This is not a high threshold, but a claimant must meet it to have VA assist with a claim.
Filing an NOA under section 7266, however, demonstrates the exact opposite intent a claimant’s intent no longer to pursue his claim for benefits through the Secretary, but instead to take the Secretary to court by seeking a legal review before the Court of the Secretary’s actions on his case. This separation between VA and the Court was made even more emphatic when Congress passed the Veterans Education and Benefits Expansion Act, Pub. L. No. 107-103, 115 Stat. 976 (Dec. 27, 2001), and removed from section 7266 the requirement for a veteran to “furnish the Secretary with a copy of [an NOA].” Bobbitt v. Principi, 17 Vet. App. 547, 552-53 (2004).
Filing an appeal to the Court thus is not an action within the “non-adversarial, manifestly pro-claimant veterans’ benefits system.” Rather, a veteran’s appeal to this Court is the first step in an adversarial process challenging the Secretary’s decision on benefits. See Forshey v. Principi, 284 F.3d 1335, 1355 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (en banc), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 823, 123 (2002) (“The veterans’ benefits system remains a non-adversarial system when cases are pending before the Veterans’ [sic] Administration. However, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims’ proceedings are not non-adversarial.”). Before the Court, the Secretary becomes a represented appellee in an appellate court adversarial proceeding.
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