LAW: In veterans’ benefits case, court says Congress chose a firm rule over a flexible standard

OPINION ANALYSIS
LAW: In veterans’ benefits case, court says Congress chose a firm rule over a flexible standard

In its first opinion of the 2022-23 term, the Supreme Court unanimously held on Monday that a one-year timeframe for military veterans to apply for retroactive disability benefits is a firm deadline that cannot be extended under a doctrine known as “equitable tolling.” The court found equitable tolling would be inconsistent with Congress’ intent for setting effective dates for veterans’ benefits.

For background, Adolfo Arellano was discharged from the United States Navy in 1981. As a result of his service, he suffered from a severe mental health condition that for many years left him unable to understand his eligibility for disability benefits. In 2011, 30 years after his military service, he applied for benefits, and the Department of Veterans Affairs granted him benefits, effective on the date the agency received his claim. Arellano appealed the effective date, arguing that he should receive retroactive benefits dating back to when he was discharged from the military.

The problem for Arellano was that a federal statute, 38 U.S.C. § 5110(b)(1)says that to receive retroactive benefits, a veteran must file a claim within a year of being discharged. Arellano argued that the one-year timeframe should be subject to equitable tolling, a doctrine that allows agencies and courts to excuse missed deadlines in certain circumstances (for example, if the veteran missed the deadline through no fault of his own).

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that equitable tolling was not available to Arellano, but was split on whether the Section 5110(b)(1) was a statute of limitations, which presumes the availability of equitable tolling.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the court, affirmed the Federal Circuit, finding that equitable tolling does not apply to Section 5110(b)(1). The court’s decision did not address whether the provision is a statute of limitations. The opinion, however, focused on the “straightforward” question of whether the government has rebutted the so-called “Irwin presumption” – a presumption derived from Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs that equitable tolling applies.

The court looked at the entire statutory scheme of Section 5110 and its 16 exceptions to determine whether the government has rebutted the presumption that equitable tolling should apply. The analysis began with the default rule in Section 5110(a)(1), which states that “the effective date” of veterans benefits “shall be fixed in accordance with the facts found, but shall not be earlier than the date of receipt of application … unless specifically provided otherwise.” By setting out 16 exceptions to this rule (including the one-year window in which veterans can seek retroactive benefits), “Congress did not throw the door wide open” to allow equitable tolling, Barrett wrote. Rather, Congress considered fairness in constructing the statutory scheme by adding various exceptions. Barrett noted that equitable tolling was not one of the 16 exceptions.

The court also looked to United States v. Brockampin which a statute with an explicit list of exceptions indicated that Congress did not intend for the courts to add additional equitable exceptions. Because Congress accounted for many different equitable factors in its exceptions, it would not expect the VA to add more equitable factors in its decision-making. Further cementing this finding, the court pointed to another exception – Section 5110(b)(4)(A) – that considers when disabilities interfere with a veteran’s ability to file for pension benefits. Congress did not provide the same exception for veterans filing for service-connected disability benefits.

The court acknowledged that the hard-and-fast limits to the statutory scheme may have “harsh results.” It relied on Congress’ “power to choose between rules, which prioritize efficiency and predictability, and standards, which prioritize optimal results in individual cases.” The court found that Congress’ intentions are clear that equitable tolling should not apply to Section 5110(b)(1), thus rebutting the Irwin presumption.

Although this outcome will negatively affect veterans, the court’s opinion will not change the VA’s current practices. The court’s decision crystallizes the importance of veterans filing for benefits as soon as they are able and solidifies the importance of the military’s role in providing servicemembers with VA benefits information, as they are separating from the service.

Disclaimer: The author of this article is a member of the National Law School Veterans Clinic Consortium, which filed an amicus brief supporting Arellano. The author did not participate in the amicus brief and is not personally involved in the case.

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