(CN) - It was improperly harsh for the Federal Circuit to refuse to consider a late appeal for benefits from a Korean War veteran with paranoid schizophrenia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
In 1992, the Department of Veterans Affairs classified David Henderson, now deceased, as 100 percent disabled for paranoid schizophrenia. He filed a claim for supplemental benefits to pay for in-home care in 2001, but a VA regional office and the Board of Veterans Affairs denied his claim. Henderson appealed but did so 15 days after the 120-day deadline. The veterans court initially denied the appeal as untimely, but was prepared to give the case another look until a Supreme Court 2007 decision gave the court pause.
Federal courts are required to consider jurisdictional issues in cases, and the court to which Henderson, or the representative of his estate, appealed found that the case lacked jurisdiction under Bowles v. Russell. In that decision, the court held that the deadline for filing a notice of appeal in an ordinary civil case is a jurisdictional issue. If a party to such a case misses the deadline, the court said late filing could not be excused based on equitable factors.
Like the veterans court, the Federal Circuit was similarly divided but affirmed.
At oral arguments before the Supreme Court, an attorney for Henderon's survivors said Bowles does not cover administrative decisions.
The justices unanimously agreed, noting that the disability benefits program for veterans is "unusually protective" with the veterans court awarding relief in 79 percent of its "merits decisions."
"The contrast between ordinary civil litigation - which provided the context of our decision in Bowles - and the system that Congress created for the adjudication of veterans' benefits claims could hardly be more dramatic," Justice Samuel Alito wrote.
While strict adversarial procedure is a hallmark of ordinary civil litigation, the decision states that proceedings before the VA are "informal and nonadversarial."
"Rigid jurisdictional treatment of the 120-day period for filing a notice of appeal in the Veterans Court would clash sharply with this scheme," Alito wrote.
Noting that members of the armed services get some deference when it comes to benefits, the justices said that they "do not find any clear indication that the 120-day limit was intended to carry the harsh consequences that accompany the jurisdiction tag."
The justices reversed the Federal Circuit's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case due to her work as solicitor general.