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UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR VETERANS CLAIMS
FRANCIS DOUGHERTY, APPELLANT,
SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, APPELLEE.
Before ALLEN, Judge.
Note: Pursuant to U.S. Vet. App. R. 30(a), this action may not be cited as precedent.
ALLEN, Judge: Appellant Francis Dougherty served the Nation honorably in the United
States Navy from January 1957 to March 1957.1 In this appeal, which is timely and over which
the Court has jurisdiction,2 he challenges a September 8, 2020, decision of the Board of Veterans’
Appeals that denied entitlement to a disability rating greater than 30% for irritable bowel syndrome
(IBS) with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), including on an extraschedular basis. Because
the Board did not provide an adequate statement of its reasons or bases that accounted for all of
appellant’s symptoms, we will set aside the Board’s decision and remand the matter for further
proceedings consistent with this decision.
Appellant does not challenge the Board’s denial of a disability rating greater than 30% for
his IBS and GERD under VA’s rating schedule. Instead, he argues that the Board erred in failing
to consider the severity of his GERD symptoms in finding that he was not entitled to extraschedular
referral. Specifically, he reports several symptoms that the Board failed to discuss: Acid reflux,
1 Record (R.) at 1362.
2 See 38 U.S.C. §§ 7252(a), 7266(a).
sleep disturbance, a need to be near a bathroom, an inability to travel long distances, and the impact
of his service-connected depression on his GERD. He asserts that these symptoms are not
contemplated by his 30% disability rating under 38 C.F.R. §
- Single Judge Application; Spellers v. Wilkie; the Court held in Spellers v. Wilkie, with respect to the diagnostic code for incomplete paralysis of the sciatic nerve, which also rates the condition based solely on the level of severity (i.e., mild, moderate, severe), the “lack of objective criteria for differentiating between the specified severity levels means that any evidence indicating severity of incomplete paralysis of the sciatic nerve is necessarily relevant to the schedular rating level.” 30 Vet.App. 211, 219 (2018) (emphasis omitted);
- Single Judge Application; tinnitus; Murphy v. Wilkie, 983 F.3d 1313, 1318 (Fed. Cir. 2020) (endorsing Clemons and explaining that “VA shall afford lenity to a veteran’s filings; evidence developed in processing that claim; claimant’s description of the claim; the symptoms the claimant describes; and the information the claimant submits or that the Secretary obtains in support of the claim; The Board did not, however, address the reasonably raised issue of whether the veteran’s specific claim for tinnitus encompassed a claim for a vestibular condition manifesting in dizziness, as required by Clemons. In Clemons, the Court explained that, because lay claimants generally lack the medical knowledge to narrow the universe of a claim to a particular diagnosis, VA “should construe a claim based on the reasonable expectations of the non-expert, self-represented claimant and the evidence developed in processing that claim.” 23 Vet.App. at 5. “[T]he claimant’s intent in filing a claim is paramount to construing its breadth,” and factors relevant to that inquiry include “the claimant’s description of the claim; the symptoms the claimant describes; and the information the claimant submits or that the Secretary obtains in support of the claim.” Id. The Court ultimately held that the Board may not deny a claim because a lay claimant’s hypothesized diagnosis proves incorrect; rather, the Board must “confront the difficult questions of what current condition actually exist[s] and whether it was incurred in or aggravated by service.” Id. at 6. In so doing, the Board must make “affirmative finding[s] as to the nature of the [claimant’s] condition.” Id. In short, “the fact that the [claimant] may be wrong about the nature of his [or her] condition does not relieve the Secretary of his duty to properly adjudicate the claim.” Id.; see generally Murphy v. Wilkie, 983 F.3d 1313, 1318 (Fed. Cir. 2020) (endorsing Clemons and explaining that “VA shall afford lenity to a veteran’s filings that fail to enumerate precisely the disabilities included within the bounds of a claim,” which “is best accomplished by looking to the veteran’s reasonable expectations in filing the claim and the evidence developed in processing that claim”).;
- Single Judge Application; the ultimate “lesson of our cases is that, while a pro se claimant’s ‘claim must identify the benefit sought,’ the identification need not be explicit in the claim-stating documents, but can also be found indirectly through examination of evidence to which those documents themselves point when sympathetically read.” Shea v. Wilkie, 926 F.3d 1362, 1368–69 (Fed. Cir. 2019). Here, the claim-stating documents pointed, when sympathetically viewed, to a history of symptoms of abdominal pain that yielded a diagnosis of gastritis. And that’s not all. The veteran’s gastritis was expressly linked to service by VA’s own medical examiner—in the context of an examination sought by the Agency as part of the development of Mr. Martinelli’s other claims.; The Secretary says the veteran is out of his depth in suggesting to the Court that melatonin use indicates sleep issues. But even if that were true, the veteran retorts, the Secretary forgets the Court’s ability to take judicial notice of facts generally known. See Tagupa v. McDonald, 27 Vet.App. 95, 100-01 (2014). Indeed, one need look no further than a basic medical dictionary to conclude that his in-service prescription was favorable, material evidence. Melatonin is “a hormone . . . implicated in the regulation of sleep, mood, puberty, and ovarian cycles. It has been tried therapeutically for a number of conditions, including insomnia and jet lag.” DORLAND’S ILLUSTRATED MEDICAL DICTIONARY 1110 (33d ed. 2020). The Board has a responsibility to explain why it rejects favorable, material evidence. Garner v. Tran, 33 Vet.App. 241, 250 (2021).;
- Tinnitus may occur following a single exposure to high-intensity impulse noise, long-term exposure to repetitive impulses, long-term exposure to continuous noise, or exposure to a combination of impulses and continuous noise (Loeb and Smith, 1967; Chermak and Dengerink, 1987; Metternich and Brusis, 1999; Temmel et al., 1999; Stankiewicz et al., 2000; Mrena et al., 2002).”
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Single Judge Application; deficient reasons and bases; It is the Board's responsibility as factfinder to assess and weigh the evidence.18 Here, we simply do not know the weight, if any, the Board gave this evidence in assigning a rating for appellant's GERD. It is important for the Board to make such a finding in the first instance.19 We recognize that the Secretary offers several arguments about why extraschedular referral is not warranted for appellant's GERD. However, it is ultimately not his prerogative to provide an explanation that the Board did not. As we have often said, the Secretary cannot make up for the Board's deficient statement of reasons or bases.20; 19 See Tadlock v. McDonough, 5 F.4th 1327, 1337-38 (Fed. Cir. 2021) ("Where additional findings of fact are necessary regarding mattes open to debate, the proper action is for the Veterans Court is to remand to the Board for consideration of those facts in the first instance.").; 20 See In re Lee, 277 F.3d 1338, 1345-46 (Fed. Cir. 2002) ("'[C]ourts may not accept appellate counsel's post hoc rationalization for agency action.'" (quoting Burlington Truck Lines, Inc. v. United States, 371 U.S. 156, 168 (1962))); McCray v. Wilkie, 31 Vet.App. 243, 258 (2019) ("[T]he Secretary's impermissible post-hoc rationalization cannot make up for shortcomings in the Board's assessment."); Simmons v. Wilkie, 30 Vet.App. 267, 277 (2018) (holding that the "Court cannot accept the Secretary's post-hoc rationalizations" to cure the Board's reasons-or-bases errors), aff'd, 964 F.3d 1381 (Fed. Cir. 2020); Smith v. Nicholson, 19 Vet.App. 63, 73 (2015) ("[I]t is not the task of the Secretary to rewrite the Board's decision through his pleadings filed in this Court.").;
Designated for electronic publication onlyUNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR VETERANS CLAIMSNo. 21-0092FRANCIS DOUGHERTY, APPELLANT,V.DENIS MCDONOUGH,SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, APPELLEE.Before ALLEN, Judge.MEMORANDUM DECISIONNote: Pursuant to U.S. Vet. App. R. 30(a), this action may not be cited as precedent.ALLEN, Judge: Appellant Francis Dougherty served the Nation honorably in the UnitedStates Navy from January 1957 to March...