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Goodman v. Shulkin

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

September 18, 2017

PREZELL GOODMAN, Claimant-Appellant
v.
DAVID J. SHULKIN, SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Respondent-Appellee

         Appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in No. 14-4329, Judge Bruce E. Kasold.

          Zachary Stolz, Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick, Providence, RI, argued for claimant-appellant. Also represented by Jenna Zellmer, Robert Vincent Chisholm, Megan Marie Ellis; Barbara J. Cook, Barbara J. Cook, Attorney at Law, Cincinnati, OH.

          William James Grimaldi, Commercial Litigation Branch, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, argued for respondent-appellee. Also represented by Benjamin C. Mizer, Robert E. Kirschman, Jr., Martin F. Hockey, Jr.; Christopher O. Adeloye, Brian D. Griffin, Office of General Counsel, United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC.

          Before Wallach, Chen, and Stoll, Circuit Judges.

          Wallach, Circuit Judge.

         Appellant Prezell Goodman appeals from a judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims ("Veterans Court") that affirmed the Board of Veterans' Appeals' ("Board") denial of service-connected benefits for rheumatoid arthritis to include as due to a medically unexplained chronic multi-symptom illness ("MUCMI") under 38 C.F.R. § 3.317 (2015). Goodman v. McDonald, No. 14-4329, 2016 WL 852866, at *1 (Vet.App. Mar. 4, 2016). We affirm.

         Background

         Mr. Goodman served in the U.S. Army from 1972 to 1992, which included service in Southwest Asia during the Persian Gulf War. J.A. 14-19, 107. During his service and at his discharge from the Army, Mr. Goodman underwent medical examinations that returned negative for rheumatoid arthritis. J.A. 161, 164-65. In fact, during a service separation examination, he denied having any pain in his joints or arthritis. J.A. 162.

         In 2007, Mr. Goodman sought treatment at a Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA") medical center for hand stiffness and bilateral knee pain; the latter he said had begun during service "since [the age of] 21 [years old]." J.A. 22. Mr. Goodman filed a claim for VA benefits for rheumatoid arthritis four months after this medical examination. J.A. 30-31. The regional office and the Board denied Mr. Goodman's claim that this injury was caused or further aggravated by his service in Southwest Asia. J.A. 37-40, 64-70.

         Mr. Goodman appealed the Board's decision to the Veterans Court. J.A. 74. Following this appeal, both parties entered a joint motion for remand, in which they agreed that "[the Board's] statement of reasons or bases [was] inadequate" because it failed "to apply the provisions of 38 C.F.R. § 3.317[] to [Mr. Goodman's] claim for entitlement to VA benefits based on service connection for rheumatoid arthritis." J.A. 76. Specifically, the parties agreed that the Board failed to consider whether Mr. Goodman's rheumatoid arthritis may be entitled to a presumptive service connection as a MUCMI under § 3.317.[1] J.A. 77-79. The parties also agreed that "it is solely a medical determination as to whether [Mr. Goodman's] illness qualifies . . . as a '[MUCMI].'" J.A. 78 (citation omitted).

         On remand, the Board sought an independent medical advisory opinion from the Veterans Health Administration, see J.A. 107, which was conducted by a VA medical center Director of Rheumatology in 2014 ("2014 Medical Opinion"), J.A. 90-95. The 2014 Medical Opinion first stated that "it is less likely than not" that Mr. Goodman's rheumatoid arthritis can be characterized as a MUCMI within the meaning of § 3.317. J.A. 90 ("[R]heumatoid arthritis has at least partially explained and widely accepted concepts in regards to etiology and pathogenesis that are well documented and established in the literature."). Second, the 2014 Medical Opinion stated that it "is less likely than not that [Mr. Goodman's] rheumatoid arthritis is related to a specific exposure event experi- enced by [Mr. Goodman] during service, including in Southwest Asia." J.A. 91. As support for this second finding, the 2014 Medical Opinion noted Mr. Goodman's medical records, including his prior negative tests for rheumatoid arthritis and denial of arthritis and joint pain upon retirement. J.A. 91. The 2014 Medical Opinion further noted that the onset of Mr. Goodman's arthritis "manifested historically and objectively long after" his service and his "rheumatoid arthritis was diagnosed [fifteen] years following discharge from active service." J.A. 91.

         Based on the 2014 Medical Opinion, the Board again denied Mr. Goodman's claim for failure to satisfy the requirements of § 3.317. J.A. 126. The Board found the 2014 Medical Opinion to be "highly probative and persuasive, " prepared by "a medical expert in the field of rheumatology, " and the "only competent medical evidence [on record] as to the question [at hand]." J.A. 116. The Board relied upon the 2014 Medical Opinion in finding that "rheumatoid arthritis[, as] a chronic multi-symptom illness . . . of partially understood etiology and patho-physiology[, ] will not be considered medically unexplained, " such that Mr. Goodman was not entitled to a presumptive service connection for a MUCMI. J.A. 116 (citation omitted).

         Mr. Goodman appealed the Board's decision to the Veterans Court, alleging in part that the Board erred in not granting him presumptive service-connection under § 3.317(a)(2)(ii) because the 2014 Medical Opinion "could not pinpoint a specific etiology or pathophysiology for Mr. Goodman's [illness]." J.A. 2. The Veterans Court found that the Board had not erred in its interpretation of § 3.317. Goodman, 2016 WL 852866, at *2. The Veterans Court further held that the Board "assigned [the 2014 Medical Opinion] significant weight and . . . its assignment of weight is plausible and not clearly erroneous." Id. The court went on to clarify that "[b]y using the phrase 'such as' when citing diabetes and multiple sclerosis as diseases that are ...


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