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U.S. Supreme Court 2010-11

Henderson v. Shinseki: A Case About Veterans Benefits

What if a disability leads to a missed claim deadline?

In Henderson v. Shinseki, the Court will consider the case of David Henderson, a Korean War veteran who, after his claim for disability benefits was rejected in 2004, lost his right to appeal the decision when he missed the filing deadline by 15 days.

Henderson argued that his late filing was the result of his service-related disability. The Veterans Court has reportedly dismissed more than 200 cases like Henderson’s since 2008.

What’s at stake. There are approximately 17 million veterans age 50 and older in the United States, and more than half of all veterans with service-related disabilities are older than 55.

Where AARP stands. AARP argues that proceedings before the Veterans Court should be nonadversarial, pro-claimant and protective of veterans, especially because more than half of all veterans who file claims do so without legal representation.

How the Court Ruled

In a unanimous decision issued on March 1, the Court held that Henderson could not be barred from appealing the rejection of his claim for disability benefits because he missed the filing deadline. (Henderson, sadly, did not live to see the vistory; he died in October 2010 while his case was pending.)

In an opinion (PDF) written by Justice Joseph Alito, the Court held that the 120-day deadline for appeals to the Veterans Court, a tribunal that it said Congress established "as part of a unique administrative scheme," cannot be applied as rigidly as it is in civil cases. Veterans are entitled to special protections, the ruling also stated.

"The contrast between ordinary civil litigation ... and the system that Congress created for the adjudication of veterans' benefits claims," Alito wrote, "could hardly be more dramatic."

The Court sent the case back to the Veterans Court to determine whether Henderson was entitled to an exception for disability-related reasons.

Next: Can a discrimination suit involving more than 1.5 million female Wal-Mart employees move forward?

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