Supreme Court hears case on retroactive benefits for disabled veterans

The Supreme Court took up a major case Tuesday dealing with a disabled veteran who is seeking decades of retroactive benefits.

The case, Arellano v. McDonough, concerns whether veterans can reclaim benefits back to their discharge date if they fail to claim them in a timely manner.

SCOTUS takes up vet benefits case

The plaintiff is a Navy veteran who suffers with PTSD as a result of his service, which ended in 1981. In 2011, he filed for and was granted disability benefits.

Arellano says that his disability prevented him from pursuing benefits within a year of leaving the service. Veterans must file within that window in order to get retroactive benefits starting from their discharge date. If the court rules in his favor, Arellano could receive up to $600,000 in backpay.

During oral arguments Tuesday, the Supreme Court signaled differing views on whether Congress meant to allow “equitable tolling,” which allows a person in extraordinary circumstances to pursue claims after a statute of limitations has lapsed, in cases like Arellano’s.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said Congress “could have been clearer” if they meant to exclude equitable tolling, but Samuel Alito appeared to agree with the government’s argument that the statute in dispute is a grace period, rather than a statute of limitations.

“Doesn’t the failure to satisfy a statute of limitations typically result in the loss of the ability to prevail on a claim, and not simply the loss of the ability to obtain a certain kind of relief?” Samuel Alito asked.

Politically explosive term

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit unanimously ruled that Arellano could not receive the retroactive benefits, but they disagreed about whether equitable tolling is generally applicable to the statute in question.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the deadline at issue a “drop-dead date.”

“You don’t file within a year, you get no survivor’s benefit,” she said.

Meanwhile, Arellano’s lawyer dismissed the government’s “overstated” prediction that granting Arellano equitable tolling would overwhelm the system with a flood of retroactive claims.

The veterans’ case was overshadowed by oral arguments in an explosive case dealing with alleged anti-black discrimination in Alabama’s congressional map. Other contentious issues on the court’s docket include affirmative action and religious freedom.