VetsFirst, through its partnership with United Spinal Association, has joined in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to ensure that veterans with disabilities are able to challenge denied VA benefits decisions in court. If the Supreme Court agrees to allow the appeal to proceed and rules in favor of the veteran who brought it, many veterans whose appeals are routinely dismissed will finally have their day in court.
“VetsFirst finds it intolerable that veterans who are perhaps the most deserving and in need of VA benefits and health care are denied their legal rights because of an overly rigid interpretation of a legal technicality,” said Paul J. Tobin, VetsFirst’s President and CEO.
The Supreme Court appeal centers around David L. enderson, a Korean War veteran who was discharged from the military because of severe mental illness. Almost 50 years later, still suffering from that condition, his claim for VA disability benefits was denied at the administrative and appellate levels. Upon receiving the VA’s complicated and confusing instructions for appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, Mr. Henderson missed the 120-day filing deadline by 15 days. The veterans court subsequently granted the VA’s request to dismiss the appeal because of the missed filing deadline.
Mr. Henderson appealed once more, this time to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit ruled that the 120-day filing deadline is absolute because a timely filed notice of appeal is the only way to confer jurisdiction over the appeal to the veteran’s court. The court based its decision on a Supreme Court case that made a similar finding – except that the appeal involved a convicted murderer who was appealing a procedural matter under criminal law.
Several judges in Mr. Henderson’s Federal Circuit decision vigorously dissented to the strict application of the 120-day veterans court deadline, finding it both “ironic and inhumane”.
Mr. Henderson has appealed the Federal Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court. The first step in that process is to petition the Court to agree to review the appeal. If the Court agrees to do so, it will then decide the appeal on the merits. VetsFirst has filed a legal brief in support Mr. Henderson’s petition and argues that the principle of “equitable tolling” – a widely-applied legal doctrine that allows appeal deadlines to be extended because of the fundamental unfairness of strictly enforcing them in an individual case – should be applied to the veterans court appeals deadline.
“Since the Federal Circuit’s decision, the veterans court has been dismissing approximately two appeals per week because the veterans’ notice of appeal was not filed on time. Veterans who are not represented by a service organization or an attorney when they appeal a VA denial of benefits are at a distinct disadvantage. Even veterans with less than severe disabilities may find it difficult to understand and follow the complex appeals instructions that the VA sends them,” explained Tobin. “It is patently unfair to treat disabled veterans the same as murderers and other criminals when it comes to appealing denied VA benefits. Why must disabled veterans with meritorious appeals be held to strict deadlines when the VA is allowed to take years or even decades to adjudicate a veteran’s benefits claim?”, Tobin added.
It is likely that the Supreme Court will make a decision on Mr. Henderson’s petition for review before it recesses for the summer.