April 16, 2024

Supreme Court Decides Rudisill v. McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

On April 16, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Rudisill v. McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, No. 22-888, holding that servicemembers who, through separate periods of service, accrue educational benefits under both the Montgomery GI Bill Act of 1984 and the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 may access benefits under either program for up to a total of 48 months of benefits.

James Rudisill served in the U.S. Army for eight years, reenlisting twice and completing three tours of duty. His initial tour entitled him to 36 months of educational benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill. His subsequent tours separately entitled him to 36 months of educational benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides for “enhanced educational assistance benefits” commensurate with those afforded to veterans of World War II. Under a statute applicable to both benefits programs, these entitlements were subject to a 48-month aggregate-benefits cap.

Rudisill used 25 months and 14 days of his Montgomery benefits to obtain a college degree and then applied to use his Post-9/11 benefits to attend divinity school. The Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that because Rudisill had requested his Post-9/11 benefits before exhausting his Montgomery benefits, he had elected to use only those benefits and was only entitled to 10 months and 16 days, equivalent to the duration of his unused Montgomery benefits. The VA’s decision was based on the “coordination” provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which permits servicemembers to exchange their Montgomery benefits for Post-9/11 benefits.

Rudisill believed he was entitled to Post-9/11 benefits up to the 48-month aggregate-benefits cap, and he filed a notice of disagreement with the VA. The VA denied Rudisill’s claim for the additional entitlement. Rudisill successfully challenged that denial through an administrative process, but the VA appealed to the Federal Circuit, which found, first in a divided panel opinion and then a divided en banc opinion, that Rudisill was not entitled to the additional entitlement he sought.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that servicemembers who have separate entitlements to both Montgomery and Post-9/11 benefits can use their benefits, in any order, up to the aggregate 48-month cap. The Court found the statute expressly required the Secretary to pay benefits up to the 48-month cap, with 36 months available under each. Because Rudisill never made an election under the “coordination” provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, he was entitled to access both, in whatever order he chose, up to the cap. Indeed, the word “election” appears in other parts of the statute, but here only speaks of “coordination,” which entitles him to swap benefits, so as not to “double-dip” from multiple available sources of benefits. The provision thus enables a veteran who earns Montgomery benefits through a period of service to instead opt for the Post-9/11 benefits if the period of service would also make the veteran eligible for Post-9/11 benefits. Rudisill, however, was entitled to Montgomery benefits as a result of his first period of service, and was separately entitled to Post-9/11 benefits through his subsequent periods of service.

Ultimately, the Court determined that the “coordination” provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill creates a mechanism allowing servicemembers with Montgomery benefits who would prefer to swap them for Post-9/11 benefits to “coordinate” these entitlements. But when a person has two separate entitlements and simply uses one entitlement after using the other, as Rudisill did, the “coordination” provision is not implicated. Because the “coordination” provision did not apply to Rudisill, he was entitled to Post-9/11 benefits up to the 48-month cap.

Justice Jackson delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joined in full. Justice Kavanaugh filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Barrett joined. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Alito joined.

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