Compliance with VA Procedures
A key legal requirement for all claimants to be aware of is that VA must follow its own procedures, specifically including the M21-1MR, in deciding a claim. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that, “[w]here the rights of individuals are affected, it is incumbent upon agencies to follow their own procedures. This is so even where the internal procedures are possibly more rigorous than otherwise would be required” by statute or regulation. Morton v. Ruiz, 415 U.S. 199, 235 (1974). This is important when VA takes a “short cut” to save time or effort and then denies a claim.
The law is that even if a regulation requires less effort than a procedure used by VA in similar circumstances, VA cannot pick and choose when to follow its own rules and when not to do so. See Castellano v. Shinseki, 25 Vet. App. 146, 151 n.2 (2011) (“[T]he Secretary must adhere to his own policies when adjudicating veterans’ claims.” (citing Morton, 415 U.S. at 235 (1974)). Yet, 38 C.F.R. § 19.5 states that “[t]he Board is not bound by Department manuals, circulars, or similar administrative issues.”
A claimant can and should identify any failure to follow the M21-1MR procedures that are relevant to his or her claim. Compliance with the M21-1MR can also be reasonably raised by the record such that the Board should address the issue. See Schafrath v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 589, 593 (1991) (Board must discuss provisions of law and regulation where they are made “potentially applicable through the assertions and issues raised in the record”).
A regional office’s failure to follow the M21-1MR and the Board’s failure to identify such issues frustrates judicial review, warranting remand. See Tucker v. West, 11 Vet. App. 369, 374 (1998) (where “the Board has incorrectly applied the law, failed to provide an adequate statement of its reasons or bases for its determinations, or where the record is otherwise inadequate, a remand is the appropriate remedy.”); Allday v. Brown, 7 Vet. App. 517, 527 (1995) (holding that the Board’s statement “must be adequate to enable claimant to understand the precise basis for the Board’s decision, as well as to facilitate review in this Court”).
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