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Last week, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Arellano v. McDonough, a veterans case that presented the Court with the opportunity to decide whether the one-year statutory deadline for seeking retroactive disability benefits may be equitably tolled. In a unanimous decision, the Court affirmed the Federal Circuit’s ruling, finding that the relevant section of the governing statute is not subject to equitable tolling. Justice Barrett authored the Court’s decision. This is our opinion summary. 

Justice Barrett began by presenting the context of the case:

This case concerns the effective date of an award of disability compensation to a veteran of the United States military. The governing statute provides that the effective date of the award “shall not be earlier” than the day on which the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) receives the veteran’s application for benefits. But the statute specifies 16 exceptions, one of which is relevant here: If the VA receives the application within a year of the veteran’s discharge, the effective date is the day after the veteran’s discharge. We must decide whether this exception is subject to equitable tolling, a doctrine that would allow some applications filed outside the 1-year period to qualify for the “day after discharge” effective date.

Justice Barrett then described the factual background of the case. She explained how VA applied the “default rule in 38 U.S.C. § 5110(a)(1)” and  “assigned an effective date of June 3, 2011—the day that the agency received his claim—to Arellano’s disability award.” In response, she described, how  

Arellano appealed, arguing that his award’s effective date should be governed by an exception in § 5110(b)(1), which makes “[t]he effective date of an award of disability compensation . . . the day following the date of the veteran’s discharge or release if application therefor is received within one year from such date of discharge or release.” Alleging that he had been too ill to know that he could apply for disability benefits, Arellano maintained that this exception’s 1-year grace period should be equitably tolled to make his award effective on or about the day after his discharge from military service in 1981.

Justice Barrett noted that the Board denied Arellano’s request, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims affirmed, and the the Federal Circuit likewise affirmed. She also noted, however, that one half of the court “maintained that § 5110(b)(1) is not subject to equitable tolling” while the other half “reasoned that § 5110(b)(1) is subject to equitable tolling but that tolling was unwarranted on the facts of Arellano’s case.”

As for the Supreme Court’s analysis, Justice Barrett began by examining the text of the statute. She explained how, given the language of the relevant provision, “equitably tolling this provision would depart from the terms that Congress ‘“’specifically provided.’” Moreover, related to the structure of the statute, she noted how “[t]here are 16 [] exceptions—and equitable tolling is not on the list.” She thus explained that, “[i]f Congress wanted the VA to adjust a claimant’s entitlement to retroactive benefits based on unmentioned equitable factors, it is difficult to see why it spelled out a long list of situations in which a claimant is entitled to adjustment—and instructed the VA to stick to the exceptions ‘specifically provided.’” She then pointed out how the fact that “Congress accounted for equitable factors in setting effective dates strongly suggests that it did not expect an adjudicator to add a broader range of equitable factors to the mix.” 

Addressing Arellano’s concerns, Justice Barrett first rejected the contention that “the provision’s unadorned text contains none of the specific, technical language that might otherwise rebut the presumption of equitable tolling.” She explained, in particular, that “§ 5110(b)(1) cannot be understood independently of § 5110(a)(1), which makes the date of receipt the effective date ‘[u]nless specifically provided otherwise in this chapter.’” Justice Barrett noted that the “specifically provided” language “is an instruction to attend to specifically enacted language to the exclusion of general, unenacted carveouts.” In this regard, the opinion explained how what Arellano seeks is “an equitable exception to an exception to a general rule.” 

Justice Barrett also addressed Arellano’s argument that the express tolling provision in § 5110(b)(4) helps, rather than hurts his case. Specifically, Arrellano argued that “an express tolling provision does not displace the presumption of tolling but rather demonstrates that a statute incorporates traditional equitable principles.” Justice Barrett quickly dismissed this argument, explaining that “§ 5110(b)(4) does not authorize tolling that equity would not otherwise have allowed” and, instead, its “conditional and narrow applicability limits tolling that might otherwise have occurred.”

Finally, Justice Barrett addressed Arellano’s argument that the “‘nature of the underlying subject matter’—veterans’ benefits—counsels in favor of tolling here.” In his argument, Arellano cited Brockamp, a case that “considered whether courts can equitably toll time limits for filing tax refund claims.” The Court rejected Arellano’s argument, with Justice Barrett explained that “the nature of the subject matter cannot over come text and structure that foreclose equitable tolling.” In addressing Brockcamp, Justice Barrett explained how that case “turned to the ‘nature of the underlying subject matter’ only to “underscor[e] the linguistic point.” Here, she explained, Arellano “lacks the linguistic point.” 

In sum, the Court held “that §5110(b)(1) is not subject to equitable tolling” and affirmed the judgment of the Federal Circuit.