United States District Court, District of Columbia
THOMAS G. ADAMSKI, Plaintiff,
JOHN McHUGH, Secretary of the Army, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
KETANJI BROWN JACKSON, District Judge.
Plaintiff Thomas Adamski is a former soldier in the United States Army who has spent decades trying to get the Army to modify his military records. Adamski was an active duty enlisted soldier from 1970 until 1973, when he was involved in a harrowing parachute-jumping incident and voluntarily requested early separation from military service. In 1988, Adamski applied to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records ("ABCMR" or "the Board") seeking to have his separation status changed from "voluntary" to "disability" in order to reflect what Adamski alleges is the real reason that his military service came to an end: previously undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). The Board denied Adamski's application to correct his records in 1989; and then, nearly two decades later, Adamski requested in writing that the Board reconsider this denial in light of purportedly new evidence regarding his condition. The Board allegedly responded to Adamski's request for reconsideration by refusing to act on it, citing a regulation promulgated in 2006 that requires all such reconsideration requests to be submitted to the Board within one year of the initial denial. Adamski has filed the instant action against the Secretary of the Army ("Defendant" or "the Secretary") to challenge the Board's application of the 2006 regulation to his request for reconsideration. Adamski alleges that the Board acted "ultra vires"- i.e., in excess of its statutory authority-when it relied on that regulation to reject his reconsideration request. ( See Am. Compl., ECF No. 22, at 1, 10.)
Before this Court at present is Defendant's motion to dismiss Adamski's amended complaint. ( See Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss ("Def.'s Mot."), ECF No. 23, at 1.) Defendant argues that the six-year statute of limitations for actions against the federal government set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a) bars Adamski's claim against the Secretary, and that, in any event, Adamski has failed to plead adequately the elements of an ultra vires claim. ( See id. ) As explained fully below, this Court finds that the statutory limitations period does not bar Adamski's challenge, and thus that the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the amended complaint. However, it appears that the doctrine of prudential exhaustion (which is not a pleading requirement in this context) may apply under the circumstances presented here. Thus, Adamski may have needed to exhaust available administrative remedies prior to seeking relief in federal court, but the amended complaint is silent regarding whether or not Adamski actually challenged the Board's application of the one-year regulation to him under the administrative process. Consequently, this Court concludes that additional submissions are required to resolve the exhaustion issue, as explained below. Accordingly, the Secretary's motion to dismiss will be DENIED, and the Court will order the parties to engage in a period of limited discovery on the issue of administrative exhaustion.
The facts that are related in this memorandum opinion and order appear in Adamski's amended complaint and are largely undisputed.
1. Adamski's Military Service, Separation, And Subsequent Health Problems
Adamski enlisted in the Army in 1970 and was trained as a paratrooper. ( See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 2.) During a training jump in November of 1972, Adamski had a "near-death" experience-his primary chute failed to open and his auxiliary chute did not open until the very last moment. ( Id. ¶ 2.) Shortly after this distressing training-jump incident, Adamski allegedly developed eye twitches and nervous tics. ( See id. ) Moreover, he began to receive negative performance reports with respect to his work, and he was eventually terminated from jump status. ( See id. ) A few months later, in March of 1973, Adamski requested early separation from the Army. ( See id. ¶ 3.) Adamski alleges that, at the time of his separation request, he "omitted reporting" any physical, mental, or emotional health concerns as a reason for ending his military service; instead, the justification he provided for requesting early separation was that he needed to return home to help with his family's farm work. ( Id. ) According to the amended complaint, the Army granted Adamski's request and released him from military service in June of 1973. ( See id. )
The amended complaint alleges that, as a direct result of the training-jump incident, Adamski has suffered from debilitating PTSD and has had to undergo long stretches of hospitalization and medical treatment. ( See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 6, 12.) The amended complaint also explains that PTSD was not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ("DSM") until 1980, and that the Veterans Administration ("VA") did not formally recognize PTSD as a medical condition until 1982. ( See id. ¶ 4.) Furthermore, the doctors at the VA who were treating Adamski for chronic emotional and mental health problems did not diagnose him with PTSD until 1986. ( See id. ¶ 6.)
In light of his PTSD diagnosis, the Social Security Administration allegedly granted Adamski "total disability" status in 1990, retroactive to 1986. ( Id. ¶ 9.) Adamski also alleges that, in 2004, the VA formally recognized that his PTSD is "service-connected"- i.e., that it stems from the 1972 training-jump incident-and that, as a result of this medical condition, Adamski is effectively unemployable. ( Id. ¶ 11.) According to the amended complaint, the VA's 2004 recognition reversed an earlier VA determination (made in 1987) in which the agency initially declined to characterize Adamski's condition as PTSD, relying on an older, more limited DSM definition. ( See id. ¶ 7.) Adamski asserts that, with its 2004 decision, the VA finally acknowledged that he has received "continuous treatment for what amount[s] to" PTSD since he left the Army in the early 1970s. ( Id. ¶ 11 (internal quotation marks omitted).)
2. Proceedings Before The ABCMR
Although both the Social Security Administration and the VA purportedly have recognized that Adamski suffers from service-related PTSD stemming from the 1972 parachute debacle, Adamski has thus far been unsuccessful in his attempts to have the Army change his military records to reflect his contention that he sought discharge due to PTSD.
a. Adamski's Initial Application In 1988
Adamski asserts that he first applied to the ABCMR in 1988 seeking to change his military separation status from "voluntary" to "disability" or "retirement." ( See id. ¶ 8.) The amended complaint states that, "[d]ue to his deteriorating mental condition[, ]" Adamski submitted relatively few records to the Board in support of this initial application for records correction. ( Id. ) Adamski alleges that the Board denied his application in 1989, finding that the statutory clock for Adamski's application had started to run in 1973, and that it would not be in the interest of justice to waive the general three-year statutory time limit in Adamski's case. ( See id. ) In so concluding, Adamski claims that the Board relied in part on the VA's 1987 decision that declined to characterize Adamski's health problems as service-related PTSD. ( See id. ) In addition, Adamski maintains that the Board indicated in its 1989 denial that-in accordance ...