March 01, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Henderson v. Shinseki

On March 1, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Henderson v. Shinseki, No. 09-1036, holding that the Department of Veterans Affairs' 120-day deadline for filing a notice of appeal from the Board of Veterans' Appeals to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is a procedural rule that does not have jurisdictional consequences. 

After the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) denied David Henderson's claim for supplemental disability benefits, he filed a notice of appeal in the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (Veterans Court).  In doing so, Henderson missed the statutory 120-day deadline for filing such an appeal by 15 days.  Henderson asserted that he was entitled to equitable tolling of the deadline because his illness had caused his tardy filing.  The Veterans Court, however, concluded that the 120-day deadline was jurisdictional and therefore not subject to equitable tolling.  The Veterans Court therefore dismissed Henderson's appeal.   

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the 120-day deadline is merely a "claims-processing rule" and does not affect the Veterans Court's jurisdiction.  The Court rejected the government's argument that all statutory deadlines for appealing civil cases are jurisdictional and noted that the appeal here was not from one Article III court to another but from an administrative agency to an Article I court.  Looking to the question of whether Congress provided a "clear" indication that it intended the deadline to be jurisdictional, the Court observed that (1) the language of the statute was not phrased in jurisdictional terms (2) Congress placed the deadline provision in the "Procedure" rather than the "Jurisdiction; finality of decisions" section of the statute and (3) Congress demonstrated its "solicitude" for veterans in both the purpose and the terms of the statute.  For these reasons, the Court concluded that the 120-day deadline was not jurisdictional.  (The Court expressed no opinion on the availability of equitable estoppel as an exception to the deadline.)

Justice Alito delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court.  Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. 

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