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Retroactive Veterans' Benefits

Not often do veterans’ benefits cases reach the United States Supreme Court, but last month the Court heard the case of Arellano v. McDonough. The case addresses the ability of a veteran to seek retroactive benefits. Under 38 U.S.C. § 5110, when a veteran files for disability benefits within a year of separation, they will be granted benefits starting upon the date of separation. But if the disability filing occurs after one year, the benefit date starts with the filing date. Arellano asks the court to consider whether the one-year limit should be waived (equitably tolled in legal speak) when, for reasons of the veteran’s disability, they were prevented from filing within the timeframe.

Adolfo Arellano separated from the Navy in 1981, suffering from severe PTSD. The VA does not disagree with Arellano about whether he suffers from PTSD or even whether he has suffered the entire time since his separation. The issue is Arellano did not file for benefits until 2011. The VA granted his benefits but only starting in 2011.

Arellano argues that his PTSD and the mental health issues it generated prevented him from understanding that he needed to file. He argues that because his disability directly prevented him from filing earlier, he should be granted benefits back to his 1981 separation date, which would total over $600,000 in additional benefits. The VA counters that a rule providing equitable tolling of the filing date would run counter to Congress’s intention as outlined in subsection (b)(4) and require intense individual fact-finding that is largely beyond the ability of an already overburdened department.

In 1990, the Court addressed a similar question under another statute and said that Courts should consider whether circumstances require such equitable tolling. (Irwin v. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89 (1990)). Despite this, the Federal Circuit said tolling rules do not apply to § 5110 and denied Arellano’s claim that his benefits should be calculated back to his separation date.

Based on the Court’s history, the opinion will be released sometime after the new year.

Images: "United States Department of Veterans Affairs Flag" by theglobalpanorama is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0;

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