George v. McDonough

Justia Summary

George joined the Marine Corps in 1975 without disclosing his history of schizophrenic episodes. His medical examination noted no mental disorders. George suffered an episode during training. The Marines medically discharged him. George applied for veterans’ disability benefits based on his schizophrenia, 38 U.S.C. 1110. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals denied his appeal from a regional office denial in 1977. In 2014, George asked the Board to revise its final decision. When the VA denies a benefits claim, that decision generally becomes “final and conclusive” after the veteran exhausts the opportunity for direct appeal. George sought collateral review under an exception allowing revision of a final benefits decision at any time on grounds of “clear and unmistakable error,” 38 U.S.C. 5109A, 7111. He claimed that the Board applied a later-invalidated regulation to deny his claim without requiring the VA to rebut the statutory presumption that he was in sound condition when he entered service.

The Veterans Court, Federal Circuit, and Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief. The invalidation of a VA regulation after a veteran’s benefits decision becomes final cannot support a claim for collateral relief based on clear and unmistakable error. Congress adopted the “clear and unmistakable error doctrine” developed under decades of prior agency practice. The invalidation of a prior regulation constitutes a “change in interpretation of law” under historical agency practice, not “clear and unmistakable error.” That approach is consistent with the general rule that the new interpretation of a statute can only retroactively affect decisions still open on direct review. The fact that Congress did not expressly enact the specific regulatory principle barring collateral relief for subsequent changes in interpretation does not mean that the principle did not carry over.