The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted the case of a Navy veteran who believes his Department of Veterans Affairs disability compensation should have been paid starting from the date he left the military rather than the day he submitted his paperwork, a decision that could mean some veterans who waited years to file claims would be eligible for substantial back pay.
The veteran, Adolfo Arellano, served from 1977 to 1981, during which he was assigned to an aircraft carrier that experienced a collision that "killed and injured several of his shipmates and nearly swept him overboard," according to court documents.
Arellano developed post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions; 30 years later, he applied for disability benefits, which were approved as service-connected by the VA and backdated to his 2011 filing date.
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But Arellano appealed, saying he should have received payments retroactive to his discharge, since his service-connected mental health conditions prevented him from filing a claim sooner -- in particular, filing during the one-year grace period given to transitioning service members that expedites their cases.
Arellano said the statute of limitations should have been waived since he wasn't mentally able to file a claim before the time limit expired -- a legal concept known as "equitable tolling."
When the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims denied Arellano's claim, he appealed. The Federal Circuit judges then split their decision on the case 6-6, with half saying the equitable tolling policy couldn't be changed, and the other half saying it should be eliminated.
As a result of the split, Arellano's attorneys petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.
A ruling in Arellano's favor has the potential to affect "thousands of current and future veterans," according to his attorney, James Barney, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and partner in the D.C.-based firm Finnegan.
Barney said that, as the equitable tolling doctrine stands now, veterans have no recourse for seeking a waiver to the one-year deadline, "no matter how compelling the individual circumstances."
"It would apply a more flexible rule that would be to the benefit of potentially thousands of disabled veterans," Barney told Military.com. "The equitable tolling doctrine is only supposed to apply in extenuating circumstances, but when you are talking about disabled veterans, there often are extenuating circumstances."
In Arellano's petition to the court, his attorneys noted that veterans fail to file claims within the one-year period for reasons other than incapacitation, including that they may be discouraged by others, may not be aware they are eligible for benefits, or they were injured during operations that involved secrecy and fear disclosing classified information.
"This would at least give these veterans an opportunity to ask the court to toll these deadlines because, as of right now, the veteran has zero chance of asking for [a waiver]," Barney said.
The Supreme Court is petitioned between 7,000 and 8,000 times a year with requests to review cases, but it hears only about 80.
Barney said the justices likely decided to take Arellano's case because of the division on the issue in the Federal Circuit.
"When you see that kind of split, it means they need to look into it. That's the role of the Supreme Court, to step in and try to decide," Barney said.
With the case, Arellano v. McDonough, now accepted, the federal government is required to file a response. Oral arguments have yet to be scheduled.
"It's an unfortunate reality that many members of the armed forces face a difficult path once discharged from the service," Arellano's attorneys wrote in their petition to the court. "Indeed, the sad irony is that the very illnesses the veterans' benefits system is designed to address, such as PTSD, are often the ones that cause veterans to miss the one-year deadline."
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.
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