Supreme Court to decide whether veterans who miss disability benefit deadlines will be reimbursed

The Supreme Court will decide whether veterans who missed filing deadlines for disability benefits due to injury or incapacity should be able to claim back pay from their separation from the military.

The ruling could potentially give some veterans hundreds of thousands of dollars in retroactive disability payments, a life-changing boon for people struggling with a host of medical issues.

A final decision on the matter is still likely in several months. On Tuesday the High Court agreed to hear the case – Arellano v. McDonough – due to its potential far-reaching impact, but oral arguments before all nine judges and a timeline for a final decision have yet to be scheduled.

The case, which has been debated in the federal court system for years, involves Navy veteran Adolfo Arellano, who left the service in 1980 after being injured in an accident aboard a carrier -planes.

Arellano suffered from bipolar schizoaffective disorder as a result of the accident and spent years living on the streets or in the care of family members. When his father died in 2011, he applied for disability benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs and received a monthly support allowance due to his service-related injuries.

However, because Arellano had not applied for benefits within a year of leaving the service, he was not eligible to receive retroactive benefits dating back to the end of his military service. Current law states that veterans must file documents within that one-year window to backdate payments to that military separation date.

Arellano’s lawyers argued that veterans facing extreme injuries or complicated health issues should have those time limits waived under the legal principle of fair toll. Previous court decisions have prohibited this approach in veterans’ disability cases.

But James Barney, a partner at the Washington, DC law firm Finnegan, which represents Arellano, said the Supreme Court could overturn that precedent.

“What we’re arguing in this appeal is that a veteran should be allowed to at least ask for a fair toll,” he said. “There may be extremely compelling circumstances that would normally lead a judge to rule that it is permissible. But because of that [precedent]veterans court says their hands are tied.

Last summer, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit deadlocked in a 6-6 decision on the issue, leaving the current limits in place. The Supreme Court will consider the same arguments and attempt to make a more definitive decision.

A court ruling in favor of Arellano’s argument would not automatically grant new benefits to a veteran. But Barney said it would open the door for individuals to argue why they should be eligible for retroactive pay, instead of just having those arguments dismissed without any real consideration.

“If there was a similar time limit in any private litigation, private litigants would have the right to argue for a fair toll,” said Barney, who is also a Navy veteran. “So why don’t military veterans have the same luck?”

Lawyers on both sides will spend the next few months submitting briefs to the Supreme Court supporting their positions. The court’s current term is set to end at the end of June, making it unlikely – but not impossible – that the case will move to oral argument this summer.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned him numerous accolades, including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award, and the VFW News Media Award.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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