This Report summarizes an opinion issued on January 23 (Part I); and cases granted review on December 27, 2022, and January 13, 2023 (Part II).
Opinion: Arellano v. McDonough, 21-432
Arellano v. McDonough, 21-432. “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.” 38 U.S.C. §5110(a)(1). One statutory exception to that effective date appears in §5110(b)(1), which provides that 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. The Court unanimously held that this exception is not subject to equitable tolling.
Adolfo Arellano served in the Navy from 1977 to 1981. Roughly 30 years later, he applied for disability benefits due to his mental health challenges. The VA determined that Arellano has service-connected disabilities and awarded him benefits, effective on the date that it received his claim. Arellano appealed, contending that his award should be effective as of the day after his military discharge in 1981. He acknowledged that he did not timely submit his application for retroactive disability benefits under §5110(b)(1), which required him to file his claim within one year of his discharge date. But Arellano sought equitable tolling of this one-year time limit, alleging that his mental health challenges prevented him from understanding his rights. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the en banc Federal Circuit all denied Arellano’s request for equitable tolling. In an opinion by Justice Barrett, the Court affirmed.
As an initial matter, the Court assumed without deciding that §5110(b)(1) is a statute of limitations that carries a presumption that equitable tolling is available to a claimant. See Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 95-96 (1990). The Irwin presumption can be rebutted where there is good reason to believe that Congress did not intend for equitable tolling to apply. And the Court found “very good reason to draw that conclusion” based on the text and structure of §5110.
Beginning with the statutory text, the Court noted §5110(a)(1)’s default rule for the effective date of an award of benefits: it “shall not be earlier” than the day on which the VA receives the veteran’s claim unless “specifically provided” by a statutory exception. And §5110(b)(1) specifically provides, “The effective date of an award of disability compensation to a veteran shall be 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.” Applying equitable tolling to that provision, the Court reasoned, “would depart from the terms that Congress ‘specifically provided.’”
As for §5110’s structure, the Court noted that Congress set forth “detailed instructions that explain when various types of benefits qualify for an effective date earlier than the default.” There are 16 statutory exceptions to §5110(a)(1)’s default rule, the Court pointed out, and equitable tolling is not one of them. But “many of the specific exceptions reflect equitable considerations,” which “strongly suggests” that Congress “did not expect an adjudicator to add a broader range of equitable factors to the mix.” That the detailed exceptions operate as both time constraints and substantive limitations on the amount of the award due is a strong indicator that Congress did not intend for courts to read other exceptions into the statute. See United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347, 352 (1997).
The Court also found it noteworthy that “[i]n all but one instance, Congress capped retroactive benefits at roughly one year.” This “strongly suggests” that Congress “did not expect open-ended tolling to dramatically increase the size of an award.” Finally, the Court concluded that Congress was well aware of the possibility that a veteran’s disability could cause delay in applying for benefits because it accounted for that situation in §5110(b)(4), “which applies to disability pensions rather than disability compensation.” That exception “makes pension benefits retroactive to the date of permanent and total disability if the disability prevented the veteran from applying for an award at the time of onset.” For the Court, the absence of similar language in §5110(b)(1) shows that Congress did not want such equitable considerations to factor into an award for disability compensation.