Supreme Court Activity

As we reported last week, the Supreme Court granted a petition for certiorari in Arellano v. McDonough, which raises questions about equitable tolling with regard to retroactive disability benefits for veterans. This is the second veterans case during the Supreme Court’s October 2021 term in which the Court has granted review. This case arises from a decision that left the Federal Circuit evenly split on the reasons for its decision “that equitable tolling is not available to afford Mr. Arellano an effective date earlier than the date his application for benefits was received.” Here are more details about the case.

In this case, the petitioner seeks guidance from the Supreme Court concerning retroactive disability benefits for veterans who missed filing deadlines due to injury or incapacitation. According to the petition, this issue impacts “tens of thousands of current and future military veterans” and is thus ripe for review.

In a per curiam and en banc opinion, the Federal Circuit upheld the decision of Veterans Affairs, ruling that equitable tolling–or, extending the statutory filing deadline due to unique circumstances that precluded the litigant from making a timely filing–“is not available to afford Mr. Arellano an effective date earlier than the date his application for benefits was received.” Here, Mr. Arellano filed an application for disability benefits nearly three decades after his discharge from the Navy. Leaving the Andrews v. Principi decision in place, which held that the one-year filing deadline is not subject to equitable tolling, the Federal Circuit declined to accept Mr. Arellano’s argument that his award should apply retroactively due to his mental illness that prevented him from filing earlier.

At the Supreme Court, Mr. Arellano asked the Court to determine whether the relevant statutory provision addressing veterans’ benefits is amenable to equitable tolling. In an amicus brief. Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc. argued that “[d]enying an equitable outcome to these veterans flies in the face of the government’s moral duty and longstanding obligation to make whole veterans who are injured in the line of duty, especially where those injuries are the sole cause of the delay in applying for benefits.” In recognizing that the Court has applied equitable tolling to other statutory and administrative settings, the brief asserted that not only is equitable tolling in the veterans’ benefits context consistent with Congress’s intent, it “imposes no undue burdens on the VA.”

Given that the concept of equitable tolling arises in a variety of statutory settings, the Court’s decision here may not only affect tens of thousands of current and future military veterans, but also have much broader implications far beyond the veterans’ benefits context.

We will continue to monitor this case.