38 CFR § 3.2601 - Higher-level review.

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§ 3.2601 Higher-level review.

(a) Applicability. This section applies to all claims under the modernized review system, with the exception of simultaneously contested claims.

(b) Requirements for election. A claimant who is dissatisfied with a decision by the agency of original jurisdiction may file a request for higher-level review in accordance with § 3.2500, by submitting a complete request for review on a form prescribed by the Secretary.

(c) Complete request. A complete request for higher-level review is a submission of a request on a form prescribed by the Secretary, whether paper or electronic, that meets the following requirements:

(1) A complete request must provide the name of the claimant and the relationship to the veteran, if applicable;

(2) A complete request must be signed by the claimant or a person legally authorized to sign for the claimant; and

(3) A complete request must specify the date of the underlying decision for which review is requested and specify the issues for which review is requested.

(d) Filing period. A complete request for higher-level review must be received by VA within one year of the date of VA's issuance of the notice of the decision. If VA receives an incomplete request form, VA will notify the claimant and the claimant's representative, if any, of the information necessary to complete the request form prescribed by the Secretary. If a complete request is submitted within 60 days of the date of the VA notification of such incomplete request or prior to the expiration of the one-year filing period, VA will consider it filed as of the date VA received the incomplete application form that did not meet the standards of a complete request.

(e) Who may conduct a higher-level review. Higher-level review will be conducted by an experienced adjudicator who did not participate in the prior decision. Selection of a higher-level adjudicator to conduct a higher-level review is at VA's discretion. As a general rule, an adjudicator in an office other than the office that rendered the prior decision will conduct the higher-level review. An exception to this rule applies for claims requiring specialized processing, such as where there is only one office that handles adjudication of a particular type of entitlement. A claimant may request that the office that rendered the prior decision conduct the higher-level review, and VA will grant the request in the absence of good cause to deny such as when processing is centralized at one office within the agency of original jurisdiction or when the office that rendered the prior decision does not have higher-level review personnel available to conduct the review.

(f) Evidentiary record. The evidentiary record in a higher-level review is limited to the evidence of record as of the date the agency of original jurisdiction issued notice of the prior decision under review and the higher-level adjudicator may not consider additional evidence. The higher-level adjudicator may not order development of additional evidence that may be relevant to the claim under review, except as provided in paragraph (g) of this section.

(g) Duty to assist errors. The higher-level adjudicator will ensure that VA complied with its statutory duty to assist (see § 3.159) in gathering evidence applicable prior to issuance of the decision being reviewed. If the higher-level adjudicator both identifies a duty to assist error that existed at the time of VA's decision on the claim under review and cannot grant the maximum benefit for the claim, the higher-level adjudicator must return the claim for correction of the error and readjudication. Upon receipt, the agency of jurisdiction will expeditiously readjudicate the claim in accordance with 38 U.S.C. 5109B.

(1) For disability evaluations, the maximum benefit means the highest schedular evaluation allowed by law and regulation for the issue under review.

(2) For ancillary benefits, the maximum benefit means the granting of the benefit sought.

(3) For pension benefits or dependents indemnity compensation, the maximum benefit means granting the highest benefit payable.

(h) Informal conferences. A claimant or his or her representative may include a request for an informal conference with a request for higher-level review. For purposes of this section, informal conference means contact with a claimant's representative or, if not represented, with the claimant, telephonically, or as otherwise determined by VA, for the sole purpose of allowing the claimant or representative to identify any errors of law or fact in a prior decision based on the record at the time the decision was issued. If requested, VA will make reasonable efforts to contact the claimant and/or the authorized representative to conduct one informal conference during a higher-level review, but if such reasonable efforts are not successful, a decision may be issued in the absence of an informal conference. The higher-level adjudicator with determinative authority over the issue will conduct the informal conference, absent exceptional circumstances. VA will not receive any new evidence or introduction of facts not present at the time of the prior decision or apart of the evidentiary record in support of the higher-level review during the informal conference in accordance with paragraph (d) of this section. Any expenses incurred by the claimant in connection with the informal conference are the responsibility of the claimant.

(i) De novo review. The higher-level adjudicator will consider only those decisions and claims for which the claimant has requested higher-level review, and will conduct a de novo review giving no deference to the prior decision, except as provided in § 3.104(c).

(j) Difference of opinion. The higher-level adjudicator may grant a benefit sought in the claim under review based on a difference of opinion (see § 3.105(b)). However, any finding favorable to the claimant is binding except as provided in § 3.104(c) of this part. In addition, the higher-level adjudicator will not revise the outcome in a manner that is less advantageous to the claimant based solely on a difference of opinion. The higher-level adjudicator may reverse or revise (even if disadvantageous to the claimant) prior decisions by VA (including the decision being reviewed or any prior decision) on the grounds of clear and unmistakable error under § 3.105(a)(1) or (a)(2), as applicable, depending on whether the prior decision is finally adjudicated.

(k) Notice requirements. Notice of a decision made under this section will include all of the elements described in § 3.103(f), a general statement indicating whether evidence submitted while the record was closed was not considered, and notice of the options available to have such evidence considered.

(Authority: 38 U.S.C. 5109A and 7105(d))
[84 FR 173, Jan. 18, 2019]