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Supreme Court Rules That Equitable Tolling Does Not Apply

In a unanimous 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled today that veterans with service-connected disabilities that prevent them from timely filing a claim are not entitled special consideration when assigning the effective date of the claim.  The case is Arellano v. McDonough.  The veteran, Adolfo Arellano, served in the US Navy from 1977 to 1981.  He is service-connected for posttraumatic stress disorder.  The effective date of his claim is June 2011, the date that VA received his claim.  Thus, the start of his compensation is June 2011.

Arellano argued that his illness prevented him from filing his claim prior to June 2011.  And, because of this, VA should take this into consideration when assigning the effective date.  He acknowledged the default rule that, pursuant to 38 U.S.C. § 5110(a)(1), the effective date is typically the date VA receives the claim.  There is an exception to this general rule, though.  If a veteran files a claim within one year of the date of their discharge from service, the effective date is the date of discharge.  38 U.S.C. § 5110(b)(1).  On its face, this exception allows up an additional year of retroactive benefits.  But if the VA treats an application filed more than one year after discharge as if it had been filed within the year after discharge, a veteran could potentially recover decades’ worth of retroactive payments.

Arellano argued that a legal doctrine called “equitable tolling” should apply to his situation.  This doctrine says that a legal deadline is paused when some extraordinary circumstance prevents a person from acting timely.  Arellano said that the one year from date of discharge exception was the sort of legal deadline that should be tolled.   He asked the Court to hold the one-year deadline is paused when a veteran’s service-connected condition prevents them from filing.

The Supreme Court disagreed.  It found that Congress had not intended such a result.

Thus, even if a veteran’s service-connected condition prevents them from filing the claim, when they eventually do, the effective date is the date they filed.

What does this mean for me?

When in doubt, file a claim.  The effective date (which affects retroactive pay) is typically the date the veteran filed the claim.  The Supreme Court held this is true regardless of the veteran’s circumstances.  If your buddy suffers from a severe cognitive disorder, mental health condition, is in a coma, or for whatever reason isn’t in a place to file their own claim, make sure they get help.

Talk to your elected leaders.  The Supreme Court essentially said “this is what Congress intended.”  Let Congress know that veterans whose very condition caused by service also prevents them from getting help from VA should be afforded special consideration when setting the effective date.

If you have questions about the appropriate effective date for your claim, please contact us so we can get your claim file from VA and have it reviewed by an attorney.

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About the Author

Adam Werner is a partner and practicing attorney at WHG. He specializes in personal injury cases, workers’ compensation claims, and veteran disability benefits. He routinely writes about personal injury and workers comp topics for the Werner, Hoffman, Greig & Garcia blog

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