Saturday, March 5, 2011

Supreme Court rules that deadline for military veterans who appeal federal government’s denial of benefits need not be rigidly enforced

From USA Today:

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled unanimously March 2 that a deadline for military veterans who appeal the federal government’s denial of benefits need not be rigidly enforced.

The justices sided with a mentally ill Korean War vet whose appeal was blocked because he missed a 120-day deadline for judicial review by 15 days. The high court reversed a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit that said Veterans Court judges could not make exceptions to the deadline, even when a veteran’s illness contributed to his delayed appeal.

Writing for the high court, Justice Samuel Alito said, “The (Department of Veterans Affairs) is charged with the responsibility of assisting veterans in developing evidence that supports their claims, and in evaluating that evidence, the VA must give the veteran the benefit of any doubt. … Rigid jurisdictional treatment of the 120-day period for filing a notice of appeal in the Veterans Court would clash sharply with this scheme.”

Lawyers for David Henderson, who was found 100% disabled with paranoid schizophrenia after his service in the 1950s, said he missed the 120-day deadline because he was bedridden. The case had started in 2001 when Henderson, who lived in North Carolina, sought monthly benefits for in-home care related to his severe mental illness.

Henderson died in October at age 81. His wife, Doretha, took over the case against the secretary of Veterans Affairs at the Supreme Court.

Numerous veterans groups, including the Paralyzed Veterans of America and National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, weighed in on the case. They said the increase in traumatic stress and other psychological injuries from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would likely cause more veterans to miss deadlines.

When the Federal Circuit ruled that the 120-day limit for appeals barred any judicial exceptions, the Circuit relied on a 2007 Supreme Court case that had restricted judges’ ability to bend deadlines set by Congress.

But on Tuesday, Alito wrote that the 2007 case did not apply to the appeal of a VA denial to the Veterans Court. He noted the earlier case, Bowles v. Russell, involved an appeal from one court to another.

Alito added that Congress, in writing the veterans’ judicial-review law, had not prevented judges from looking at individual situations to see whether a deadline exception was warranted.

Justice Elena Kagan, who until last year was U.S. solicitor general, did not participate in the case of Henderson v. Shinseki.