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Supreme Court upholds time limit for retroactive veteran disability benefits

The high court ruled against a veteran who argued his service-induced disability prevented him from applying in time for benefits dating back to his discharge from the Navy.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that the one-year application window for disabled veterans to receive benefits retroactive to their discharge date cannot be extended.

The veteran who brought the case, Adolfo Arellano, was only awarded compensation effective from the time he filed his application for disability benefits in 2011, even though it had been 30 years since he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy.

On July 29, 1980, in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, Arellano was working on the flight deck of the Navy's USS Midway aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf when a Panamanian freighter known as the Cactus collided into the American warship. Arellano was almost crushed and swept overboard, while several of his shipmates were injured or killed.

The Department of Veterans Affairs determined Arellano was fully disabled and suffered symptoms of schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder with post-traumatic stress disorder, which the department determined was linked to service-related trauma.

Arellano claims that his psychiatric disorders prevented him from filing his claim within the one-year window, which he argues should be extended, or tolled, so that the amount of his benefits would be based on when his disability occurred.

The Board of Veterans' Appeals rejected Arellano's argument per Andrews v. Principi, a Federal Circuit decision that the board said categorically barred equitable tolling from the one-year period in the relevant statute.

Sitting en banc, the Federal Circuit was evenly divided on the complex issue in Arellano's case and their per curiam decision left in place the Andrews precedent.

After the Supreme Court granted Arellano's petition for certiorari, his attorney James R. Barney of Finnegan Henderson argued in October that the retroactive benefits deadline is similar to other claim processing rules that have been found amenable to equitable tolling in claims against the government and in private litigation, and should be treated as a statute of limitations.

He relied on previous precedent from Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, where the Supreme Court said that statutes of limitations in actions against the government are subject to the same rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling applicable to suits against private defendants.

"The Irwin presumption, however, is just that—a presumption. It can be rebutted, and if equitable tolling is inconsistent with the statutory scheme, courts cannot stop the clock for even the most deserving plaintiff," wrote Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Donald Trump appointee, in Monday's opinion.

The justices unanimously sided in favor of Veteran Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, finding there is "good reason to believe" that Congress did not want equitable tolling to apply because the statue "contains detailed instructions for when a veteran’s claim for benefits may enjoy an effective date earlier than the one provided by the default rule."

Barrett explained that in U.S. v. Brockamp, the high court found that Congress did not intend for courts to include "open-ended, 'equitable' exceptions," when a statue already contains a detailed and “explicit listing of exceptions” as well as substantive and procedural limitations.

"If Congress wanted the VA to adjust a claimant’s entitlement to retroactive benefits based on unmentioned equitable factors, it is difficult to see why it spelled out a long list of situations in which a claimant is entitled to adjustment—and instructed the VA to stick to the exceptions 'specifically provided,'" Barrett wrote.

Monday marked the first time the justices read their opinions from the bench in over two years. However, Justices Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito were absent for unknown reasons.

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