February 8th, 2023 by Rieders Travis in Statute of Limitations

Arellano v. McDonough, 2023 U.S. LEXIS 541, 214 L. Ed. 2d 315 (S. Ct. January 23, 2023) (Barrett, J.)  This case concerns the effective date of an award of disability compensation to a veteran of the United States military. The governing statute provides that the effective date of the award “shall not be earlier” than the day on which the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) receives the veteran’s application for benefits. But the statute specifies 16 exceptions, one of which is relevant here: If the VA receives the application within a year of the veteran’s discharge, the effective date is the day after the veteran’s discharge. We must decide whether this exception is subject to equitable tolling, a doctrine that would allow some applications filed outside the 1-year period to qualify for the “day after discharge” effective date. We hold that the provision cannot be equitably tolled.  The United States offers benefits to any veteran who suffers a service-connected disability. 38 U. S. C. §§1110, 1131. A veteran seeking these benefits must file a claim with the VA. §5101(a)(1)(A). “A regional office of the VA then determines whether the veteran satisfies all legal prerequisites, including the requirement that military service caused or aggravated the disability.” George v. McDonough, 596 U. S. ___, ___-___, 142 S. Ct. 1953, 1957, 213 L. Ed. 2d 265 (2022)). If the regional office grants the application, it assigns an “effective date” to the award, and payments begin the month after that date. §§5110(a)(1), 5111(a)(1). If the effective date precedes the date on which the VA received the claim, the veteran receives retroactive benefits. Section 5110 dictates how this date is calculated. The default rule is that “the effective date of an award . . . shall be fixed in accordance with the facts found, but shall not be earlier than the date of receipt of application therefor.” §5110(a)(1). This rule applies “[u]nless specifically provided otherwise in this chapter.” Ibid. Sixteen exceptions in §5110 “provid[e] otherwise,” including one specifying that “[t]he effective date of an award of disability compensation to a veteran shall be the day following the date of the veteran’s discharge or release if application therefor is received within one year from such date of discharge or release.” §5110(b)(1). On its face, this exception allows up to one year of retroactive benefits. But if the VA can treat an application filed more than one year after discharge as if it had been filed within the statutory window, a veteran could potentially recover decades’ worth of retroactive payments. Congress could have designed a scheme that allowed adjudicators to maximize fairness in every case. But Congress has the power to choose between rules, which prioritize efficiency and predictability, and standards, which prioritize optimal results in individual cases. Cf. Brockamp, 519 U. S., at 352-353, 117 S. Ct. 849, 136 L. Ed. 2d 818 (observing that “Congress decided to pay the price of occasional unfairness in individual cases . . . in order to maintain a more workable tax enforcement system”). Congress opted for rules in this statutory scheme, and an equitable extension of §5110(b)(1)’s 1-year grace period would disrupt that choice. While Arellano claims to seek an equitable exception to a general rule, he actually seeks an equitable exception to an exception to a general rule. Structurally, that is a heavy lift. Moreover, §5110(b)(1) is nestled within a list of 15 other exceptions to §5110(a)(1)’s default rule, and, as we have already explained, the presence of this detailed, lengthy list raises the inference that the enumerated exceptions are exclusive. We hold that §5110(b)(1) is not subject to equitable tolling and affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Attorney Cliff Rieders

Attorney Cliff RiedersCliff Rieders is a Nationally Board Certified Trial Lawyer practicing personal injury law. A large part of his practice involves multi-district litigation, including cases related to pharmaceuticals, vitamin supplements and medical devices. He is admitted in several state and federal courts, as well as the Supreme Court of the United States. Rieders is the past regional president of the Federal Bar Association and is a life member of the distinguished American Law Institute, which promulgates proposed rules adopted by many state courts. He is a past president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, formerly Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association. As a founder of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, he served on the Board for 15 years.

Not only has Rieders held many highly esteemed, leadership positions, he authored legislation related to the Patient Safety Authority and the Mcare Act, which governs medical and hospital liability actions in Pennsylvania. He authored texts upon which both practitioners and judges rely, including Pennsylvania Malpractice Laws and Forms, and Financial Responsibility Law Issues in Pennsylvania, the latter governing auto and truck collisions in Pennsylvania. In addition, he wrote several books on the practice of law in Pennsylvania regarding wrongful death and survivor actions, insurance bad faith, legal malpractice claims and worker rights, among others. Rieders also serves as a resource to practitioners as a regular speaker for Celesq, an arm of the world’s largest legal publisher, Thomson Reuters West Publishing.

As recognition of his wide range of contribution to his profession and of his dedication to protecting the rights of his clients, he received numerous awards, among them the George F. Douglas Amicus Curiae Award, the Milton D. Rosenberg Award, the B’nai B’rith Justice Award, and awards of recognition from the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers. [ Attorney Bio ]



Article Categories