Supreme Court rules unanimously against veteran in case about deadline to file for disability benefits

The Supreme Court delivered a unanimous ruling on Monday with regard to the statutory time limitations imposed on military veterans seeking retroactive disability benefits, the Conservative Brief reported.

The court, in this particular case, rejected the judicial doctrine of “equitable tolling,” which allows for missed filing deadlines to be excused in certain circumstances, such as an individual missing a deadline they had otherwise sought to meet through no fault of their own.

Should deadlines be waived to make benefits retroactive

According to the Air Force Times, the case of Arellano v. McDonough involved a U.S. Navy veteran named Adolfo Arellano who had suffered injuries in an aircraft carrier accident while serving in 1980, and who was subsequently medically retired in 1981 with a diagnosis of bipolar schizoaffective disorder plus post-traumatic stress disorder.

Because of his mental health issues, Arellano then spent the next few decades either living homeless on the streets or under the care of family members, and reportedly did not become aware that he could file with the Department of Veterans Affairs for disability benefits until after his father had passed away in 2011.

He was approved for those benefits but only as of the 2011 date of his application and not retroactively to the date of his discharge in 1981 — which would have amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars — due to a statutory provision that established a one-year deadline post-discharge for applications for disability benefits to be filed.

That decision was appealed as unfair in the resultant lawsuit from Arellano — who argued that the deadline should be waived in his case due to his mental disabilities — but was upheld by the VA, a federal appeals court, and now the Supreme Court, according to SCOTUSblog.

The applicable statute on effective dates of veterans’ benefits

At issue here is 38 U.S.C. Sec. 5110(b)(1), which states that “The effective date of an award of disability compensation to a veteran shall be the day following the date of the veteran’s discharge or release if application therefor is received within one year from such date of discharge or release.”

In the unanimous 14-page ruling authored by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, it was made clear that the doctrine of “equitable tolling” to waive deadlines was not applicable in this case with respect to Arellano’s claims given the context of the entire Sec. 5110 statute.

It was first noted that Sec. 5110(a)(1) provided the default rule, in that “Unless specifically provided otherwise in this chapter, the effective date of an award based on an initial claim, … shall be fixed in accordance with the facts found, but shall not be earlier than the date of receipt of application therefor.”

Yet, the ruling went on to point out that the statute contained 16 specific exceptions to that default rule, of which 5110(b)(1) is the first, in which benefits can be made retroactively before the application received date, though generally those exceptions only extended back one year, and none of which mention or even hint at an allowance for equitable tolling.

If Congress wanted to grant equitable tolling, it would have said so

“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'” in Sec. 5110(a)(1), Barrett wrote.

“Yet despite its attention to fairness, Congress did not throw the door wide open in these circumstances or any other. In all but one instance, Congress capped retroactive benefits at roughly one year,” she continued at another point. “This pattern matters. That Congress accounted for equitable factors in setting effective dates strongly suggests that it did not expect an adjudicator to add a broader range of equitable factors to the mix. And its decision to consistently cap retroactive benefits strongly suggests that it did not expect open-ended tolling to dramatically increase the size of an award.”

“Congress could have designed a scheme that allowed adjudicators to maximize fairness in every case. But Congress has the power to choose between rules, which prioritize efficiency and predictability, and standards, which prioritize optimal results in individual cases,” Barrett wrote, and in this instance, Congress “opted for rules in this statutory scheme” that would be disrupted if the one-year grace period were equitably tolled.

In other words, and with acknowledgment of the likely “harsh results” for some veterans due to the ruling, it was determined that if Congress had intended to allow for equitable tolling in Sec. 5110, it would have written it into the statute instead of providing the 16 limited and specific exceptions to the default “date received” standard for benefits applications.

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