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7 min read

Kriner v McDonough-Intent to File

Sign of the Department of Vetarans Affairs Intent to File a Claim

1. Introduction: Harriet H. Kriner's Appeals Process

Harriet H. Kriner, the surviving spouse of a United States Army veteran, finds herself in the midst of an appeal process. The Board of Veterans' Appeals has denied her accrued benefits, non-service-connected burial benefits, and service-connected burial benefits. This setback prompted Harriet to take her case to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which, at first, affirmed the Board's decision. However, a glimmer of hope emerged when the Federal Circuit stepped in and vacated part of the decision, leading to the case being remanded back to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The journey for Harriet continues as she strives to secure the benefits that she rightfully deserves.

2. The Question of Intent to File a Claim for Benefits

At the heart of this case is the question of whether the letter Mr. Kriner submitted to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can be considered an intent to file a claim for benefits. The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims reached the determination that the letter did not meet the criteria for an intent to file, resulting in the absence of a pending claim that Mr. Kriner could perfect. It is important to note that at the time of his death, Mr. Kriner had neither submitted an intent to file nor had a claim pending.

3. The Controversial Letter: Mr. Kriner's correspondence with the VA

The crux of the matter lies in the letter Mr. Kriner sent to the VA in March 2015. This correspondence was prompted by the VA's decision to terminate Mr. Kriner's nonservice-connected pension and request the reimbursement of overpaid benefits. In response, Mr. Kriner contended that the termination of his pension was unfounded and asserted his entitlement to additional benefits. However, the VA countered by notifying Mr. Kriner that he needed to complete a standardized form to properly initiate a claim for benefits.

4. Denial of Accrued Benefits: The Board's Decision

Mrs. Kriner applied for benefits based on her husband's 15 disabilities following his death. However, the Board denied her claim for accrued benefits, claiming that her husband's letter did not amount to a formal claim. The Federal Circuit upheld this decision but overturned the denial of accrued benefits, sending the case back to the Court to determine whether the letter constituted a qualifying intent to file a claim. Ultimately, the Court ruled that the letter was an informal communication and not a proper claim for benefits. It is crucial for the Board to provide sufficient reasoning for its decisions to facilitate review by the Court.

Before March 24, 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) accepted informal claims for benefits. These claims required an intent to apply for benefits, identification of the benefits sought, and a written communication. However, in 2015, the VA introduced the "intent to file" process, which mandates claimants to provide identifiable information and specify the general benefit they are seeking.

Mrs. Kriner argues that her husband's letter meets the requirements for an intent to file, but the Secretary disputes its validity since it was not submitted using one of the three prescribed methods outlined in the rule. The Court's task is to determine whether the VA restricted claimants to only these three methods. In examining the VA's use of the word "can" in the rule, which has potential for different interpretations, the Court scrutinizes whether it limits the submission of intent to file to only the prescribed methods.

The Court concludes that the structure and language of the rule do not support the appellant's interpretation. It highlights that the appellant's reading fails to give meaning to key words like "one," "following," and "three" in the rule. The Court also cites subsection (b)(4) of the rule, which explicitly states that if an intent to file is not submitted in the required form, the VA will not take further action. Based on this, the Court argues that the text and structure of the VA's intent-to-file rule refute the appellant's interpretation.

Furthermore, the Court refers to the VA's published rulemaking, which clearly states that an intent to file must be filed using one of the three methods listed in § 3.155(b)(1). The Court asserts that there is no ambiguity in the VA's intent-to-file rule and contends that a claimant must submit their intent to file using one of the three designated methods. Granting an exception to these enumerated forms, as requested by the appellant, would undermine the VA's established claims process.

The Court's ruling in the case of Mr. Kriner's March 2015 letter determines that it cannot be considered an intent to file under the authorized methods provided. Consequently, the Court upholds the Board's decision to deny accrued benefits to Mrs. Kriner. Additionally, the Court finds no fault in the Board's interpretation of the VA's October 2015 letter, which clearly stated that all claims must be submitted on a standard form.

Judge Jaquith, in a concurring opinion, argues against adding new terms or conditions to the regulation to restrict the submission of an intent to file to just three specified ways. Judge Jaquith maintains that the current language of § 3.155(b)(1) is permissive, not mandatory, and should not be altered to impose limitations.

Regarding Mrs. Kriner's claim, the Court determines that she has not provided sufficient evidence to prove any error on the part of the Board in their interpretation of the October 2015 letter. The Court also dismisses the relevance of the July 2015 letter from the VA, as it does not acknowledge Mrs. Kriner's March 2015 letter or indicate receipt of an intent to file.

Other legal arguments pertaining to the case are not addressed by the Court, as they are rendered unnecessary by the Court's ruling that the March 2015 letter does not meet the requirements of § 3.155(b)(2) since it fails to specify the type of benefit sought by the veteran.

In February 2016, Mrs. Kriner filed a new claim, separate from the one submitted by her late husband in March 2015. The Court emphasizes the application of the pro-veteran canon as a fundamental rule of interpreting veterans benefits law. Consequently, the Court denies Mrs. Kriner's request for accrued benefits, highlighting the absence of evidence indicating that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) owed money to the veteran prior to his passing in January 2016.

To support its decision, the Court refers to two previous cases, Kriner I and Kriner II, both of which were subject to appeal. Additionally, the Court alludes to the regulatory changes implemented by the VA in March 2015, specifically the replacement of the informal claim rule with the "intent to file" scheme. In examining Mr. Kriner's letter, the Court discusses the Board's determination that it was received on March 26, 2015, which fails to meet the criteria outlined in § 3.155(b)(2). Furthermore, the Court addresses the Kriners' unearned income, inheritance, overpayment, and total debt.

Regarding the Kriners' appeal against Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough, the Court deliberates on whether the veteran's submission to the Department of Veterans Affairs constitutes an intent to file a claim for benefits.

Throughout the proceedings, the Court references various sections of the record (R.) to substantiate its decision, including a copyright notice from Thomson Reuters.

Additionally, the Court cites multiple cases such as Kriner v. McDonough, Foster v. McDonough, Goodman v. Shulkin, Tropf v. Nicholson, and Kisor v. Wilkie. Furthermore, the Court makes reference to multiple sections of the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.), most notably 38 C.F.R § 3.155(a), emphasizing the importance of using the prescribed form provided by the Secretary in order to receive benefits.

In the court's analysis, it underscores the significance of demonstrating an intent to file a claim and highlights the requirement that even an informal claim must be in written form. Additionally, the court delves into the repercussions of failing to submit a formal claim application within one year of making an informal claim. Pertinent regulations referenced by the court include 38 C.F.R. § 3.155(b), 38 C.F.R. § 3.155(b)(2), and 38 C.F.R. § 3.155(b)(1).

Furthermore, the court examines the word "form" in relation to the submission of intent to file a claim for benefits, drawing upon various cases such as Butts v. Brown, Washington v. Nicholson, and Hembree v. Wilkie. Emphasizing the importance of interpreting regulations in accordance with their plain meaning, the court also cites the case of Donnelly v. F.A.A., which stresses the significance of attributing meaning to every word and clause in a statute.

To expand its discussion, the court makes references to additional cases including Kriner v. McDonough, United States v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., and Van Dermark v. McDonough. Additionally, the court points to various regulations like 38 C.F.R. § 3.155(b)(1), 38 C.F.R. § 3.155(d), and 38 C.F.R. § 3.155(a). Stressing the importance of contextual interpretation, the court references the case of Atencio v. O'Rourke, which advises reading words in their entirety rather than in isolation. To complement this, the court cites the case of Kisor, which underscores the significance of comprehending the regulatory structure and scheme.

Moreover, the court explores the concept of intent to file a claim for benefits as outlined in the Standard Claims and Appeals Forms, citing various entries from the Federal Register, including 79 Fed. Reg. at 57,660, 79 Fed. Reg. at 57,666, and 79 Fed. Reg. at 57,661. Additional cases referenced by the court encompass Bailey v. Wilkie, Veterans Just. Grp., LLC v. Sec'y of Veterans Affs., and Military-Veterans Advoc. v. Sec'y of Veterans Affs.

The court in this case refers to various regulations, specifically 38 C.F.R. § 3.155(a) and 38 C.F.R. § 3.155(b)(1). Furthermore, the court cites the Kisor case, which clarifies that a thorough review of a regulation does not automatically imply that the regulation is unclear or ambiguous. Additionally, the court makes mention of several records, including R. at 139, R. at 797, and R. at 641.

In discussing the Wilson v. McDonough case, the court highlights that the VA made an error by failing to clearly communicate to the claimant that the evidence submitted was insufficient. To underscore the significance of the Board's role in evaluating evidence, the court references multiple cases such as Smith v. Shinseki, Deloach v. Shinseki, and Robinson v. Peake. Furthermore, the court mentions the Quirin v. Shinseki case, which indicates that the Court typically does not consider additional allegations of error that are rendered moot by the Court's opinion.

To support its arguments, the court brings up various cases, including Kriner v. McDonough, Kisor v. Wilkie, and Langdon v. McDonough. It emphasizes the importance of avoiding the inclusion of limitations in regulations that lack such limitations, as demonstrated in cases like Ward v. Wilkie and Southall-Norman v. McDonald. The court also cites the Veterans Justice Grp., LLC v. Sec'y of Veterans Affairs case, which examines the interpretation of the word "can" within the context of permission. Moreover, the court references the Buczynski v. Shinseki case, which cautions against including limitations in one diagnostic code while neglecting to include them in a related diagnostic code.

In relation to the pro-veteran canon, the court discusses the Henderson v. Shinseki case. Additionally, the court brings up the Brown v. Gardner case, which raises concerns about introducing extra-regulatory language that could undermine a claim. Finally, the court references the Gomez v. McDonald case, which emphasizes the importance of a liberal interpretation of arguments made by claimants who are representing themselves.