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Saunders v. Wilkie

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

April 3, 2018

MELBA J. SAUNDERS, Claimant-Appellant
v.
ROBERT WILKIE, ACTING SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Respondent-Appellee

          Appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in No. 15-975, Judge Coral Wong Pi-etsch.

          Melanie L. Bostwick, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP, Washington, DC, argued for claimant-appellant. Also represented by Eric Shumsky; Patrick Aaron Berkshire, Barton F. Stichman, National Veterans Legal Services Program, Washington, DC.

          Mark E. Porada, Commercial Litigation Branch, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, argued for respondent-appellee. Also represented by Chad A. Readler, Robert E. Kirschman, Jr., L. Misha Preheim; Y. Ken Lee, Jonathan Krisch, Office of General Counsel, United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC.

          Before Newman, Dyk, and O'Malley, Circuit Judges.

          O'MALLEY, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         Melba Saunders appeals from a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims ("the Veterans Court") denying her entitlement to disability benefits based on her reported pain from bilateral knee disorders. Saunders v. McDonald, No. 15-0975, 2016 WL 3002862 (Vet. App. May 25, 2016) (Saunders I), aff'd, 2016 WL 4258493 (Vet. App. Aug. 12, 2016) (Saunders II) (affirmed by a three-judge panel). The Veterans Court erred as a matter of law in finding that Saunders's pain alone, absent a specific diagnosis or otherwise identified disease or injury, cannot constitute a disability under 38 U.S.C. § 1110 (2016). We therefore reverse the Veterans Court's legal determination and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         Saunders served on active duty in the Army from November 1987 until October 1994. Saunders I, 2016 WL 3002862, at *1. Saunders did not experience knee problems before serving in the Army. During her service, however, Saunders sought treatment for knee pain and was diagnosed with patellofemoral pain syndrome ("PFPS"). Id. Saunders's May 1994 exit examination reflected normal lower extremities but noted Saunders's reporting of a history of swollen knee and hip joints and bone spurs on her feet.

         In 1994, Saunders filed a claim for disability compensation for knee pain, hip pain, and a bilateral foot condition. Id. The VA Regional Office ("RO") denied Saunders's claim because she failed to report for a re- quired medical examination. Saunders did not appeal that decision.

         In 2008, Saunders filed a new claim for a bilateral knee disability and for foot issues. The RO treated this application as a request to reopen the prior decision, granted the request, and denied both claims on the merits. As to Saunders's knee claim, the RO noted in the rating decision that Saunders was diagnosed with PFPS while in service, but the RO had "not received any current medical evidence" related to Saunders's knee condition.

         In 2009, Saunders submitted a Notice of Disagreement, explaining that she had "sustained injuries to [her] knees" while on active duty, citing the PFPS diagnosis, and stating that she was "still experiencing pain and swelling in [her] knees." J.A. 643-44. The RO denied this claim in February 2010, citing a lack of evidence of treatment for a knee condition. Saunders appealed this decision to the Board of Veterans' Appeals ("the Board").

         During a 2011 VA examination, the examiner noted that Saunders reported experiencing bilateral knee pain while performing various activities such as running, squatting, bending, and climbing stairs. The examiner found that Saunders had no anatomic abnormality, weakness, or reduced range of motion. The examiner also noted that Saunders had functional limitations on walking, that she was unable to stand for more than a few minutes, and that sometimes she required use of a cane or brace.

         The examiner diagnosed Saunders with subjective bilateral knee pain and found that this pain led to (1) increased absenteeism and (2) effects on Saunders's ability to complete daily activities. The examiner also concluded that Saunders's knee condition was at least as likely as not caused by, or a result of, Saunders's military service. The VA later explained that "pain" could not be provided as a diagnosis for Saunders's knee condition, and requested that the examiner provide a complete rationale for the diagnosis. In a supplemental report, the examiner stated there was no pathology to render a diagnosis on Saunders's condition, and noted that the theory of causation was based on the chronology of events during Saunders's service. After reviewing the supplemental report, the RO once again denied Saunders's claim because, in its view, Saunders had not demonstrated a currently diagnosed bilateral knee condition linked to military service.

         Saunders appealed to the Board. Before the Board, Saunders argued that, because the examiner found that her knee conditions were linked to her service, and because she was treated while in service and afterwards for knee pain, she had sufficiently demonstrated service connection for her condition. The Board reopened Saunders's knee claim, concluding the additional evidence she offered was new and material, but denied her claim on the merits. The Board acknowledged that Saunders was diagnosed while in service with PFPS and that the examiner found that Saunders's knee condition was likely related to her active service. But the Board concluded that Saunders failed to show the existence of a present disability as is required for service connection. More specifically, the Board relied on the Veterans Court's ruling in Sanchez-Benitez v. West, 13 Vet. App. 282, 285 (1999) (Sanchez-Benitez I), in concluding that "pain alone is not a disability for the purpose of VA disability compensation." J.A. 22. Because the examiner did not provide a pathology to explain the pain Saunders reported, the Board denied Saunders service connection for her knee claim.[1]

         Saunders appealed that decision to the Veterans Court. She argued there that the Board erred legally in its interpretation of what constitutes a "disability" under 38 U.S.C. § 1110. The Veterans Court affirmed the Board's decision denying Saunders's claim. Saunders I, 2016 WL 3002862, at *6. The Veterans Court noted that, in Sanchez-Benitez I, it stated that it "holds that pain alone, without a diagnosed or identifiable underlying malady or condition, does not in and of itself constitute a disability for which service connection may be granted." Id. at *2 (emphasis added) (quoting Sanchez-Benitez I, at 285). Although Saunders asserted this statement was merely dicta, the Veterans Court noted that it had labeled this statement as a holding in Sanchez-Benitez I, "making it clear that it intended to establish precedent." Id.

         The Veterans Court also rejected Saunders's contention that we converted the Veterans Court's holding on pain in Sanchez-Benitez I into dicta upon appeal. Id. (citing Sanchez-Benitez v. Principi, 259 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (Sanchez-Benitez II)). The Veterans Court explained that we decided Sanchez-Benitez II on alternative grounds: the panel on appeal did not need to reach the legal issue of whether pain is a disability because the panel instead held that it could not review the Board's factual determination that Sanchez-Benitez had failed to establish a nexus between his neck pain and his service. Id. at *2-3 (citing Sanchez-Benitez II, at 1361-62). The Veterans Court noted that it has applied the legal holding of Sanchez-Benitez I more than 100 times since that opinion issued, and that it has relied upon or affirmed the Board's application of this legal principle at least 83 times. Id. at *4.

         Saunders moved for panel review of Saunders I, a one-judge decision. A Veterans Court panel granted her motion but adopted the one-judge decision in its entirety, as it found no legal or factual defects in the first ruling. Saunders II, 2016 WL 4258493, at *1. The Veterans Court denied Saunders's motion for en banc review and entered judgment. Saunders timely appealed.

         II. Discussion

         The parties dispute three issues on appeal: (1) whether this court has jurisdiction to hear Saunders's challenge to the Veterans Court's decision; (2) whether pain alone, without a specific pathology or an otherwise-identified disease or injury, can constitute a "disability" under 38 U.S.C. § 1110; and (3) if the Veterans Court erred in its legal interpretation, what is the proper remedy. We address each issue in turn. As explained below, we conclude that Saunders has raised a legal challenge to the Veterans Court's interpretation of "disability" that we may review, that the Veterans Court erred in its interpretation of § 1110, and that the proper remedy is to remand for the Board to apply the proper legal framework.

         A. Jurisdiction

         Under 38 U.S.C. § 7292(a), this court has jurisdiction to review a Veterans Court's decision with respect to the validity of a decision on a rule of law, or to the validity or interpretation of any statute or regulation relied on by the Veterans Court in making that decision. This court also has jurisdiction to "interpret constitutional and statutory provisions, to the extent presented and necessary to a decision, " and to "decide all relevant questions of law." 38 U.S.C. §§ 7292(c), (d)(1). "We review statutory and regulatory interpretations of the Veterans Court de novo." Johnson v. McDonald, 762 F.3d 1362, 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2014); accord DeLaRosa v. Peake, 515 F.3d 1319, 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2008). Absent a constitutional issue, however, we lack jurisdiction to review factual determinations or the application of law to the particular facts of an appeal from the Veterans Court. 38 U.S.C. § 7292(d)(2); see Guillory v. Shinseki, 603 F.3d 981, 986 (Fed. Cir. 2010); Moody v. Principi, 360 F.3d 1306, 1310 (Fed. Cir. 2004).

         The parties dispute whether we may exercise jurisdiction to hear this appeal. Saunders argues that we may exercise jurisdiction because her appeal presents a pure question regarding "the validity of a decision of the [Veterans] Court on a rule of law"-whether pain alone can be a disability under the meaning of § 1110. 38 U.S.C. § 7292(a); see also id. ยงยง (c)-(d). The Secretary contends that Saunders failed to challenge various findings that the Board and Veterans Court made as to her bilateral knee claim, that this court lacks jurisdiction to review those findings or ...


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