US Supreme Court rules veteran cannot equitably toll deadline for disability benefit applications News
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US Supreme Court rules veteran cannot equitably toll deadline for disability benefit applications

The US Supreme Court Monday released a unanimous opinion in Arellano v. McDonough. The issue before the court was whether an exception to a deadline for veterans’ benefits is subject to equitable tolling. According to the court, the answer is no.

Adolfo Arellano was honorably discharged from the US Navy in 1981. Thirty years later, Arellano applied for disability benefits through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA). The VA granted his benefits after finding his psychiatric disorders resulted from trauma experienced on a Navy aircraft. The VA assigned June 3, 2011 as the effective date for Arellano’s disability benefits, the same date Arellano applied for them.

Arellano appealed this date, in hopes of receiving retroactive benefits, and argued that because of his illness, he was unaware he could have applied for disability benefits sooner. He asserted that the VA should backdate his application for benefits to the date he was honorably discharged in 1981.

When applying for VA disability benefits, there is a grace period exception that backdates the effective date of benefits to the day after discharge if the application is received within one year of the discharge. Arellano argued that, due to his illness and unawareness, the one-year grace period should be “equitably tolled” to make his benefit award effective on the day after his discharge. Equitable tolling is “when a litigant diligently pursues his rights but extraordinary circumstances prevent him from bringing a timely action,” so courts can extend the limitations period.

The Supreme Court reasoned that Arellano cannot extend the limitations period because Congress specifically wrote a one-year grace period to allow veterans to collect retroactive payments for that one year only. Any claim filed after that means “a veteran could potentially recover decades’ worth of retroactive payments.” Arellano may still collect benefits, but only from the date of his application.