The Supreme Court recently issued its first decision of the Term in Arellano v. McDonough, affirming the Federal Circuit and holding that a statutory provision governing the effective date of a veterans’ benefits application is not subject to equitable tolling. (We wrote about the Court’s certiorari grant here.) So for our case of the week this week, we thought we’d highlight another veterans case from the Federal Circuit. The decision contains some interesting discussion of statutory interpretation methodology, so it may be useful for patent practitioners as well.
Case of the week: Van Dermark v. McDonough, No. 21-2225
Panel: Judges Dyk, Taranto, and Stark, with Judge Taranto writing the opinion
You should read this case if: you have a matter involving statutory interpretation
This week’s case involves several statutory provisions governing medical care for U.S. veterans abroad. Section 1724(a) generally prohibits the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from “furnish[ing] hospital . . . care or medical services” outside the United States. 38 U.S.C. § 1724(a). The immediately following subsection provides an exception: it authorizes the VA to “furnish hospital care and medical services” to a veteran outside the United States “for the treatment of a service-connected disability.” Id. § 1724(b)(1).
The veteran here received medical treatment at a non-VA facility in Thailand—notably, for conditions unrelated to his service-connected disability. He sought reimbursement from the VA for the amounts he paid for that treatment. The VA denied the claims based on Section 1724(a)’s prohibition on “furnish[ing]” medical services abroad. The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims upheld the agency’s denial.
The Federal Circuit affirmed. It noted that the statutory phrase “furnish hospital . . . care or medical services” traced back to a 1940 predecessor to what is now Section 1724(b). The Court thus “look[ed] to 1940” as “the pertinent time of initial congressional adoption” and considered the statutory language’s “ordinary meaning” at that time. It noted that a 1934 dictionary gave definitions of “furnish” including “to provide,” “to provide for,” and “to provide what is necessary for.” Those definitions were broad enough to encompass both directly delivering treatment and indirectly enabling treatment by providing payment for that treatment.
Statutory purpose, legislative history, and agency practice all confirmed that Congress intended this broad meaning of “furnish.” Under that interpretation, Section 1724(b) would authorize the VA to provide treatment abroad for service-connected disabilities either directly or through reimbursement. This “broader reading allows § 1724(b) to be more effective in furthering the evident congressional purpose of enabling veterans to receive care abroad for service-connected conditions.”
The committee reports for later amendments to the statute reflected a similar understanding. They indicated that the statute authorized treatment abroad for service-connected disabilities “at VA expense” or “on a reimbursable basis by the VA.” And in the decades since the statute’s enactment, “VA has not paid for treatment abroad” for non-service-connected disabilities. By contrast, the “VA has long paid for treatment abroad” for service-connected conditions.
The Court acknowledged that other statutory provisions use “furnish medical services” to refer only to direct delivery of treatment. For instance, a neighboring provision requires the VA to reimburse a veteran for “emergency treatment furnished the veteran in a non-[VA] facility.” But the Court explained that “a term with one meaning in one provision can take on a different meaning in a different provision that contains surrounding words that require the different meaning.” Unlike its neighbor, Section 1724 contains no “surrounding words” suggesting that “furnish” is limited to direct treatment.
Finally, the Court declined to apply the “pro-veteran interpretive canon.” Giving “furnish” a narrow meaning would “relax a limit on possible benefits to veterans” under Section 1724(a)—but would also “constrain the provision of benefits to veterans” under Section 1724(b). Because “each of the argued-for interpretations would benefit some veterans at the expense of others,” and without any “information to compare magnitudes,” the Court could not determine “what benefits veterans” as a whole.
OTHER WEEKLY STATS
Precedential opinions: 3
Non-precedential opinions: 2
Rule 36: 0
Longest pending case from argument: Doyon v. United States, No. 21-2095 (204 days)
Shortest (non-Rule 36) pending case from argument: Goffney v. McDonough, No. 22-1130 (11 days)