Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Dissent in Traynor v Turnage

Alcoholism Should Not Be Presumed to be Caused by Willful Misconduct

In our last blog post, we looked at the majority decision in Traynor v. Turnage, 485 U.S. 535 (1988), upholding a Veterans' Administration (VA) regulation that defined primary alcoholism as "willful misconduct." Today, we look at the three-Justice dissent.

By The U.S. Army (Veterans remember Prisoners of War) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Traynor majority ruled that two Vietnam War veterans, who were in recovery for alcoholism, were not entitled to an extension of time in which to use their GI Bill education benefits. Under the law, veterans had to exhaust their educational benefits within 10 years of their military service. Extensions were only allowed for veterans who could not use their benefits because of a disability not caused by their willful misconduct.  Because VA regulations defined alcoholism as willful misconduct, the VA denied the veterans' requests for extensions, and the Court upheld those denials.

The dissenting opinion by Justice Blackmun, joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall, concerned the majority's upholding of the regulation whereby the VA presumed, irrebuttably, that primary alcoholism always is the result of the veteran's "own willful misconduct."  Justice Blackmun shared facts about the named veterans, that were not presented in the majority opinion, to show how that presumption is flawed.

The first veteran, plaintiff Eugene Traynor, began drinking when he was eight or nine years old. He drank with increasing frequency throughout his teenage years, and was suffering alcohol-related seizures by the time he was on active military duty in Vietnam. During the four years following his honorable discharge in 1969, Traynor was hospitalized repeatedly for alcoholism and related illnesses.  Not until 1974 - five years after his discharge - did Traynor conquer his drinking problem. He attended college part-time beginning in 1977, and continued working toward his degree until the 10-year period for using his veteran's educational benefits expired for him in 1979.  Because of the VA regulation, Traynor was presumed to have brought his alcoholism upon himself through "willful misconduct." He was therefore unable to obtain an extension of the 10 year limitation period to utilize all of his GI educational benefits.

The other veteran, plaintiff James P. Mckelvey, also started drinking when he was a child. By the time he was 13, he began to develop the alcohol dependency that was common among members of his family. His drinking problem plagued him while he was in the Army, and afterwards. He was hospitalized frequently during the nine years that followed his honorable discharge in 1966. Mckelvey finally obtained sobriety in 1975, only a year and a half before his 10-year delimiting period expired. The VA denied Mckelvey's request for an extension because his disability, primary alcoholism, was conclusively presumed to have been caused by his "own willful misconduct."

The dissent noted that the VA's regulation deprived each of these veterans of any opportunity to establish that, in his particular case, disabling alcoholism was not willfully incurred.

Justice Blackmun wrote:
While some primary alcoholics may well owe their disability to willful misconduct, as delineated by the regulation, the VA has failed to demonstrate that all primary alcoholics had any awareness that their initial drinking was likely to result in serious injury. Nor, in many cases, would it be appropriate to describe one's gradual development of alcohol dependency as evidence of "wanton and reckless disregard of [drinking's] probable consequences." Indeed, I wonder how one meaningfully can ascribe such intent and appreciation of long-range consequences to a 9- or 13-year-old boy who follows the lead of his adult role models in taking his first drinks.
Justice Blackmun then noted that the diagnosis of alcoholism, as recognized by the medical community, requires an individualized assessment to fully understand the cause of alcoholism in each person. Presumably, evidence concerning the circumstances surrounding a veteran's development of alcohol dependence -- including his age, home environment, and psychological health -- always will be relevant to this assessment, and may not suggest willful misconduct.

The dissent concluded that the VA failed to demonstrate that any legislative or medical determinations justify its conclusive presumption that the veterans' alcoholism were incurred willfully. The dissent would have remanded the case back to the VA for individualized determinations, based on sound medical judgments whether the veterans were entitled to the extensions of time to receive all of their veterans' educational benefits.

That would have been the more reasonable approach in our opinion.

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