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Martin v. McDonald

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

August 5, 2014

GROVER MARTIN, Claimant-Appellant,
v.
ROBERT A. MCDONALD, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Respondent-Appellee

Appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in No. 11-0375, Judge Alan G. Lance, Sr.

GROVER MARTIN, of Mobile, Alabama, Pro se.

TARA K. HOGAN, Senior Trial Counsel, Commercial Litigation Branch, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice, of Washington, DC, argued for respondent appellee. On the brief were STUART F. DELERY, Acting Assistant Attorney General, JEANNE E. DAVIDSON, Director, SCOTT D. AUSTIN, Assistant Director, and KIMBERLY I. KENNEDY, Trial Attorney. Of counsel on the brief was MICHELLE D.D. BERNSTEIN, Attorney, United States Department of Veterans Affairs, of Washington, DC. Of counsel was JEFFREY D. KLINGMAN, Trial Attorney.

ALLISON B. JONES, Williams & Connolly LLP, of Washington, DC, argued for court-appointed amicus curiae Kannon K. Shanmugam. With her on the brief was KANNON K. SHANMUGAM.

Before NEWMAN, CLEVENGER, and TARANTO, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 1367

Taranto, Circuit Judge.

Grover Martin, a veteran of the United States Army, applied for educational-assistance benefits under 38 U.S.C. 3011. The Board of Veterans' Appeals denied the application, concluding that Mr. Martin was ineligible for benefits under section 3011 because the basis for his honorable discharge in 1990 constituted " willful misconduct" as a matter of law. The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims affirmed. Martin v. Shinseki, No. 11-0375, 2013 WL 931950 (Vet. App. Mar. 11, 2013).

It is undisputed that the officially declared reason for Mr. Martin's discharge was " alcohol rehabilitation failure." But " alcohol rehabilitation failure" cannot be said always to constitute or result from willful misconduct, regardless of circumstances. And neither the Board nor the Veterans Court made any determination of what particular conduct by Mr. Martin constituted misconduct, engaged in with the state of mind required for willfulness, that led to the rehabilitation-failure determination. In the absence of such findings, the denial of benefits cannot be upheld without reliance on an incorrect rule of law that alcohol rehabilitation failure always results from willful misconduct. Accordingly, we vacate the decision below. If the Secretary continues to deny the requested education benefits, the Veterans Court must further remand for inquiry into what if any willful conduct led to the rehabilitation failure in Mr. Martin's individual case.

Background

From January 1988 to April 1990, Mr. Martin served on active duty in the United States Army. When he sought treatment from the Army's substance-abuse program during his service, a doctor working in the program diagnosed him with alcohol dependence. In August 1989, Mr. Martin started alcohol-rehabilitation counseling, which evidently was not successful. On April 27, 1990, the Army honorably discharged him. As the Secretary agrees, the officially stated reason--which modified an initial statement, " alcohol abuse--rehabilitative failure" --was simply " alcohol rehabilitation failure." Amicus App. 18-19.[1]

After his discharge, Mr. Martin applied to the Department of Veterans Affairs for educational-assistance benefits under

Page 1368

Chapter 30, Title 38, of the United States Code.[2] In August 2008, the VA's Atlanta regional ...


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