What Is the Supreme Court Doing about Vet’s Retroactive Disability Benefits?

S_FRS101596Adolfo Arellano was aboard an aircraft carrier in 1980 when a collision killed and injured several of his shipmates and nearly swept him overboard.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “Supreme Court hears case on retroactive benefits for disabled veterans” reports that he was honorably discharged in October 1981. Years later, a VA doctor determined that the traumatic collision had given him psychological issues — including schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder — and left him 100% disabled.

However, for the first 30 years after his discharge, Arellano didn’t file for disability benefits because the extent of his disability prevented it. Only in 2011 did his brother, who’s also his caregiver, file a claim. The VA awarded Arellano disability benefits but didn’t back-pay him the hundreds of thousands of dollars he could have received across the three decades that preceded his claim. His lawyers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether the Navy veteran is eligible to receive the sum of the benefits he would have been entitled to had he filed for them earlier.

A federal statute lets vets get months’ worth of retroactive benefits, if they file within a year of becoming disabled. Arellano’s counsel claimed this time limit should be subject to equitable tolling, a legal principle that gives individuals flexibility on time limits in extraordinary circumstances.

Arellano appealed his case to a VA higher court and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. In summer 2021, a panel of 12 federal circuit judges split on the legal issues but agreed Arellano wasn’t entitled to back pay.

The Supreme Court would need to say if vets like Arellano can rely on equitable tolling to get retroactive benefits if they miss the VA’s one-year deadline. The case hinges on technical legal questions, including whether that deadline counts as a statute of limitations, which could open it up to equitable tolling.

The justices won’t release a decision until the spring or early summer.

Even if the justices accept the argument that vets can seek retroactive disability benefits, it’s not guaranteed Arellano will get any additional money. A lower court would likely first have to review the particulars of his case.

Reference: Military Times (Oct. 5, 2022) “Supreme Court hears case on retroactive benefits for disabled veterans”

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