The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in the case of a Navy veteran seeking an exception to the Department of Veterans Affairs' post-service claims filing deadline, arguing that his service-connected disability precluded him from understanding he was eligible for benefits in the year immediately following his departure from the military.
At issue in Arellano v. McDonough is whether a one-year, post-discharge window that allows veterans to file a claim and receive benefits beginning at the date of discharge should be waived under extenuating circumstances.
Current law allows veterans to file a disability claim at any point in their lives, but if it isn't done within that first year, compensation may be granted starting only on the filing date.
Adolfo Arellano served in the Navy from 1971 to 1981. While assigned to the aircraft carrier Midway, the ship collided with a merchant vessel and Arellano was nearly swept overboard. He witnessed the injuries of numerous service members and the deaths of two, according to court records. As a result, he developed severe mental health conditions.
Arellano applied for VA benefits in June 2011 with the assistance of his brother and was awarded disability compensation to the date of the filing. He argued, however, that since his service-connected condition left him unable to submit a claim within the year following discharge, the deadline should be waived -- a concept called equitable tolling that lets individuals, under some circumstances, pursue claims regardless of statutory deadlines.
The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims denied Arellano's claim, and he appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit then split its decision on the case 6-6, with half the judges saying the equitable tolling policy couldn't be changed, and the other half saying it should apply. The judges agreed, however, that Arellano had not made his case for the waiver. As a result of the split, Arellano appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
During arguments Tuesday, Arellano's attorney, James Barney, a partner with the Washington D.C.-based law firm Finnegan, said Congress has spelled out exceptions to its statutes of limitations, including for veterans regarding disability pensions, and it intended to do the same for disability compensation claims.
He also argued that the VA has the authority to make determinations on extenuating circumstances and, in cases where there is ambiguity, the veteran should prevail.
"We expect this to be something that's applied sparingly, but in the cases where it's truly deserving, and for veterans who truly do deserve consideration of an equitable tolling claim, it ought to be available," Barney told the justices.
Attorneys for the government argued that equitable tolling doesn't apply in the case, since the one-year post-discharge period is not a statute of limitations but merely a guideline for receiving immediate disability compensation.
By law, veterans can apply for disability compensation at any time in their lives, regardless of the timeframe.
Assistant to the Solicitor General Sopan Joshi said Congress has listed 16 exceptions in which equitable tolling can be applied to deadlines, and it would have included exceptions such as Arellano's case if it wanted to cover such cases.
"If Congress doesn't speak in that language, then there's no basis for that inference," Joshi said.
Arellano has asked that if the ruling is found in his favor, his case be sent back to the VA for further investigation so he can file a claim under the new decision. If he receives compensation dated to his discharge date, he could get more than $600,000.
During arguments, the justices pressed the attorneys to defend their arguments, with Justice Elena Kagan asking Barney how he could say that Congress intended equitable tolling to apply in cases similar to Arellano's even though it didn't include it in statute.
"You have, I think, 16 specific exceptions provided in this chapter. And this isn't one of them. And so, the thing that you want is the 17th thing, which is not specifically provided in this chapter. I mean, doesn't that language indicate the Congress didn't want this 17th thing?" Kagan asked.
Barney disagreed, noting that Congress has established a pathway for retroactive claims for disability pensions that doesn't otherwise exist under general rules and the same should hold true for disability claims.
Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Joshi over the government's strict interpretation that the 16 exceptions are the only ones intended by Congress.
"I'm not sure which way your emphasis on the 16 exceptions really cuts. I mean, if there's 16 exceptions to the rule, that kind of suggests to me that the insistence upon strict enforcement is really not that important," Roberts said.
Other justices questioned Arellano’s argument that the one-year standard was a statute of limitations.
"Why is this a statute of limitations?" Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson asked. "If they're expanding the default, and they're doing so conditionally -- 'We're expanding the default, if you file in a certain way' -- I don't understand why that operates like a statute of limitation."
"Doesn't the failure to satisfy a statute of limitations typically result in the loss of the ability to prevail on a claim and not simply the loss of the ability to obtain a certain kind of relief?" asked Justice Samuel Alito.
During an interview with Military.com before oral arguments, Barney stressed that the decision would likely affect a limited number of veterans who would have to prove they had extraordinary reasons for not filing a disability claim within their first year.
Barney added that two main groups of veterans could benefit from a ruling in Arellano's favor: those with mental health conditions or traumatic brain injury whose disabilities, like the plaintiff's, may have prevented them from filing a claim; and veterans who could not file a claim because they signed secrecy agreements and their disabilities were caused by participation in secret operations.
One such group, known as the Edgewood Veterans, has a lawsuit pending against the government over secret tests performed on them by the U.S. Army, including exposing them to mustard gas, sarin, LSD and other substances.
Their suit is on hold while the Arellano case is decided. The veterans, who filed a brief in support of Arellano to the Supreme Court, were not able to discuss their exposures or experiments until 2006; a ruling in Arellano's case would make these vets eligible for disability compensation back to their date of discharge.
"Something that is important to understand about equitable tolling is that it's a doctrine that's only used sparingly, not something that's going to be available to every veteran," Barney said. "But for those that are truly in need of it and who are truly deserving of it, it could be a godsend.”
The court could take anywhere from a month to nearly a year to issue its opinion in the case.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.