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Sullivan v. McDonald

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

March 8, 2016

MAURICE C. SULLIVAN, Claimant-Appellant
v.
ROBERT A. MCDONALD, SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Respondent-Appellee

Page 787

Appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in No. 14-283, Judge Alan G. Lance, Sr.

KENNETH DOJAQUEZ, Bluestein, Nichols, Thompson & Delgado, LLC, Columbia, SC, argued for claimant-appellant.

MELISSA BAKER, Commercial Litigation Branch, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, argued for respondent-appellee. Also represented by BENJAMIN C. MIZER, ROBERT E. KIRSCHMAN, JR., CLAUDIA BURKE; DAVID J. BARRANS, MARTIN JAMES SENDEK, Office of General Counsel, United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC.

Before REYNA, TARANTO, and STOLL, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 788

Stoll, Circuit Judge.

Maurice C. Sullivan appeals from a decision of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (" Veterans Court" ) affirming the decision of the Board of Veterans Appeals (" Board" ) concluding that the Department of Veterans Affairs (" VA" ) had satisfied its duty to assist Mr. Sullivan with his request to reopen his claim. Because the Veterans Court misconstrued 38 C.F.R. § 3.159(c)(3), we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Background

Mr. Sullivan, a veteran, filed a claim for service-connected benefits for back and neck injuries. In connection with his claim, Mr. Sullivan testified at a hearing before the VA. In particular, he testified that he sought treatment in 1984 for back and neck pain at a VA medical facility in Asheville, North Carolina, but that the doctors found nothing wrong with his back and neck. The VA denied Mr. Sullivan's claim, finding that the medical evidence of record did not establish service-connection for his injuries. Ten years later, Mr. Sullivan submitted new evidence and sought to reopen his claim. The Board denied the request to reopen, finding the newly submitted evidence was not material. The Board also determined that the VA had satisfied its duty to assist Mr. Sullivan in obtaining identified and available evidence.

Mr. Sullivan appealed to the Veterans Court. There, he argued for the first time that the VA failed to satisfy its duty to assist because it had not obtained his medical records from the Asheville VA facility (" Asheville medical records" ). The Veterans Court concluded that the VA's duty to assist claimants in securing records only extends to potentially relevant records. The Veterans Court found that the Asheville medical records were not " potentially relevant records that would aid [Mr. Sullivan] in reopening his claim," and thus affirmed the Board's determination that the VA had satisfied its duty to assist. Joint Appendix (" J.A." ) 15.

Mr. Sullivan appeals, and we have jurisdiction pursuant to 38 U.S.C. § 7292(c).

Discussion

Our jurisdiction to review Veterans Court decisions is limited by statute. We may review ...


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