January 23, 2023

Supreme Court Decides Arellano v. McDonough

On January 23, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Arellano v. McDonough, affirming the Federal Circuit, and holding that equitable tolling did not apply to a statutory rule that the effective date for an award of veteran’s disability benefits is the date on which the application is received.

Adolfo Arellano was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1981. Nearly 30 years later, he applied for disability benefits, claiming he suffered from service-related psychiatric disorders. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs approved his application and assigning it the effective date required by 38 U.S.C. § 5110(a)(1), June 3, 2011, the day it was received. Arellano appealed, arguing that the effective date for his application should have been the day after his discharge, as permitted by 38 U.S.C. § 5110(b)(1). Section 5110(b)(1) provides that an application’s effective date is the day after discharge, provided the application is filed within one year of discharge. Because Arellano had not applied for benefits within one year of his discharge, he argued the one-year deadline in section 5110(b)(1) was subject to equitable tolling.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that equitable tolling did not apply to section 5110(b)(1), because it was clear from the text of the statute as a whole that “Congress did not want the equitable tolling doctrine to apply.” In particular, the court focused on section 5110’s “detailed instructions” for when an application for benefits “may enjoy an effective date earlier than the one provided by the default rule.” The Court highlighted the statement that the default rule should apply “[u]nless specifically provided otherwise in this chapter,” the 16 separate and discrete exceptions to the default rule listed in section 5110 — many of which “reflect[ed] equitable considerations,” the fact that the exceptions generally capped retroactive benefits at around one year, and the conspicuous absence of equitable tolling from that list. These factors indicated that Congress did not intend the deadline to be subject to equitable tolling.

Justice Barrett authored the opinion for a unanimous court.

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