CHARLES D. BURRIS, JR., Claimant-Appellant
ROBERT WILKIE, ACTING SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Respondent-Appellee BEN H. THOMPSON, Claimant-Appellant
ROBERT WILKIE, ACTING SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Respondent-Appellee
Appeals from the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans
Claims in Nos. 14-2980, 15-768, Chief Judge Robert N. Davis,
Judge Coral Wong Pietsch, Judge William Greenberg.
Douglas J. Rosinski, Douglas J. Rosinski Esq., Inc.,
Columbia, SC, argued for claimants-appellants.
James Reed, Widener University, Wilmington, DE, for
claimant-appellant Charles D. Burris, Jr.
Veronica Nicole Onyema, Commercial Litigation Branch, Civil
Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington,
DC, argued for respondent-appellee. Also represented by Chad
A. Readler, Robert E. Kirschman, Jr., Elizabeth M. Hosford;
Y. Ken Lee, Bryan Thompson, Office of General Counsel, United
States Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC.
Lourie, O'Malley, and Taranto, Circuit Judges.
O'Malley, Circuit Judge.
D. Burris, Jr. and Ben H. Thompson appeal from decisions of
the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
("Veterans Court") denying their respective
requests for equitable relief. See Burris v.
McDonald, No. 14-2980, 2016 U.S. App. Vet. Claims LEXIS
1941 (Vet.App. Dec. 20, 2016) ("Burris
Decision"); Thompson v. Shulkin, No.
15-0768, 2017 U.S. App. Vet. Claims LEXIS 335 (Vet.App. Mar.
8, 2017) ("Thompson Decision"). Because we
hold that the Veterans Court lacks jurisdiction to grant the
particular form of equitable relief that Appellants seek, we
consolidated appeals involve two cases that present similar
issues related to Appellants' requests for educational
assistance benefits. We summarize each case below.
Burris's Case (No. 17-2001)
father served on active duty in Vietnam from February 1969 to
January 1971, and was granted a permanent and total
disability rating for schizophrenia effective October 1,
2000. Because of his father's disability, Burris was
eligible to receive Dependents' Educational Assistance
("DEA") benefits. In October 2010, Burris, then
35-years old, elected to receive retroactive benefits for the
period beginning on May 7, 2002, and ending on May 7, 2010.
During a portion of that period, Burris was enrolled as an
undergraduate student at Southeastern Louisiana University.
studies were interrupted in January 2005, however, when his
mother unexpectedly passed away. At that time, Burris became
the primary caretaker for his father, who suffered from
prostate cancer. As a result, Burris was unable to attend
school between August 16, 2004, and May 10, 2010. Burris
could not resume his studies until after his period of DEA
eligibility had expired.
Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA") notified
Burris that it could not grant DEA benefits after the
expiration of his eligibility period, and thereafter denied
Burris's request for an extension of that period, citing
VA regulations that prohibit extensions for dependents
"beyond age 31." 38 C.F.R. §§
21.3041(g)(1), (g)(2), 21.3043(b). The VA also refused to
reimburse Burris for educational expenses incurred from 2002
to 2004 because DEA benefits cannot be paid for expenses
incurred more than one year prior to Burris's October
2010 application date. The Board of Veterans' Appeals
("Board") likewise denied Burris's request for
an extension. Although it expressed sympathy for Burris, it
stated that it was bound by applicable law and "is
without authority to grant benefits simply on the basis of
equity." J.A. 34.
Veterans Court affirmed on appeal. The court held that the
Board correctly determined that it was without jurisdiction
to grant equitable relief. Burris Decision, 2016
U.S. App. Vet. Claims LEXIS 1941, at *5- 14. Citing 38 U.S.C.
§ 503-which gives the Secretary of the VA authority to
pay "moneys to any person whom the Secretary determines
is equitably entitled"-the court determined that only
the Secretary may provide such relief. Id. at *5-13.
relevant here, the court also determined that it could not
itself exercise equitable powers to extend Bur-ris's
eligibility deadline, noting that it is devoid of such
authority. Id. at *14 (citing Fritz v.
Nicholson, 20 Vet.App. 507 (2006); Moffitt v.
Brown, 10 Vet.App. 214 (1997); Owings v. Brown,
8 Vet.App. 17 (1995)). The court therefore affirmed the
Board's decision denying relief.
Thompson's Case (No. 17-2003)
served intermittently in the U.S. Navy and Air Force from
1975 to 2012. Under statutory law, Thompson was entitled to
receive 48 months of educational assistance benefits for his
time in service. As of May 2011, Thompson had used 44 months
and 22 days of entitlement and therefore had a period of 3
months and 8 days remaining.
July 7, 2011, the VA sent Thompson a Certificate of
Eligibility ("COE") accurately indicating that he
had only 3 months and 8 days of full-time benefits
available.One day later, however, the VA sent
Thompson a second COE erroneously indicating that he had 36
months of fulltime benefits remaining. Relying in part on the
second COE, Thompson transferred his remaining eligibility to
his son so that he could attend the University of South
Carolina School of Law, the more expensive of the two schools
that he was considering attending.
Thompson's son enrolled, the VA refused to provide 36
months' worth of benefits, and Thompson alleges that he
incurred approximately $50, 000 of additional
education-related expenses. The Board affirmed the VA,
stating that it "has no authority to grant additional
benefits on an ...