JACQUELINE H. JONES, Claimant-Appellant
ROBERT WILKIE, SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Respondent-Appellee
from the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
in No. 15-3919, Chief Judge Robert N. Davis, Judge Mary J.
Schoelen, Judge Margaret C. Bartley.
Gentile, Veterans Legal Advocacy Group, Arlington, VA, argued
for claimant-appellant. Also represented by Harold Hamilton
S. Iarossi, Commercial Litigation Branch, Civil Division,
United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, argued
for respondent-appellee. Also represented by Robert Edward
Kirschman, Jr., Loren Misha Preheim, Joseph H. Hunt; Brian D.
Griffin, Samantha Ann Syverson, Office of General Counsel,
United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC.
Moore, Reyna, and Chen, Circuit Judges.
Jones, who substituted as appellant for her deceased husband
Josephus Jones, appeals the decision of the U.S. Court of
Appeals for Veterans Claims (Veterans Court), which affirmed
the Board of Veterans' Appeals (Board) decision denying
an earlier effective date for service-connected compensation
for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ms. Jones argues
that the Veterans Court erred in using a heightened legal
threshold to determine whether the Veterans Administration
(VA) was required to assist Mr. Jones in obtaining his VA
treatment records, which he asserted might contain an
earlier, informal claim that could entitle him to an earlier
effective date for benefits. Because the Veterans Court erred
in analyzing the VA's duty to assist, we vacate the
Veterans Court's decision and remand for consideration of
Mr. Jones's complete VA treatment file.
general, the effective date of a VA benefits award is the
date the VA receives an application for the claim or the date
entitlement arose, whichever is later. 38 U.S.C. §
5110(a); 38 C.F.R. § 3.400. However, under the VA
regulations that applied to Mr. Jones's claims, if an
applicant submitted an "informal claim,
" the VA was required to send the applicant
a formal application form, and, assuming the applicant
returned the form within one year, the VA would deem the
formal application submitted as of the date of receipt of the
informal claim. 38 C.F.R. § 3.155 (2000).
Jones served in the Marine Corps from 1968 to 1970. A VA
psychiatrist treated him and diagnosed him with PTSD in 2000.
J.A. 1; J.A. 17. Mr. Jones formally applied for disability
benefits for PTSD in April 2011. J.A. 27. In February 2012,
the VA Regional Office (RO) awarded Mr. Jones a 100%
disability rating for PTSD, effective April 13, 2011, the
date the RO received his formal application. J.A. 2; J.A. 37.
in 2012, Mr. Jones filed a notice of disagreement arguing
that he should receive an earlier effective date that
reflects VA medical treatment for PTSD beginning in 2000. Mr.
Jones asserted that he "did not file until 11 years
later because the doctors did not explain to [him] what PTSD
really was back in 2000." J.A. 61. On July 17, 2015, the
Board denied Mr. Jones's claim for an earlier effective
date. The Board acknowledged the existence of "VA
medical records showing treatment for mental health
symptoms" in 2000, but the Board found that the records
before it "[did] not indicate an intent to file a claim
for benefits and are not considered an 'informal
claim' under any applicable regulations at the
time." J.A. 17.
Jones appealed to the Veterans Court, which affirmed the
Board's decision. The Veterans Court did not review Mr.
Jones's complete treatment files. The Veterans Court
noted: "The Secretary tacitly admits that the complete
VA medical records from 2000 and 2001 are not in the record .
. . ." J.A. 1. In light of Mr. Jones's statement
that he did not request benefits until 2011, however, the
Veterans Court found that "the likelihood of such an
informal claim [from 2000 or 2001] appearing in the
unobtained VA medical records is extremely low." J.A. 3.
Further, the Veterans Court found, even if the records
contained a communication that met the definition of an
"informal claim," Mr. Jones had not shown that such
an informal claim was received by the "benefits section
of the VA," as opposed to a doctor at the "Veterans
Health Administration." J.A. 4.
Jones passed away in October 2016, and his wife substituted
into the case and appealed on his behalf.
jurisdiction to review a Veterans Court decision "with
respect to the validity of a decision of the Court on a rule
of law or of any statute or regulation . . . or any
interpretation thereof (other than a determination as to a
factual matter) that was relied on by the Court in making the
decision." 38 U.S.C. § 7292(a). "We review
de novo legal ...