AARP had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a ruling that imposed rigid, inflexible rules that harm disabled veterans seeking to appeal the denial of their benefits.
David Henderson, a Korean War veteran discharged in 1952 on the basis of a service-connected mental disability, requested additional benefits to obtain in-home care in 2001 and was denied. He appealed, but missed the 120-day appeal time by 15 days. Mr. Henderson argued that his failure to make a timely appeal was directly due to his service-related mental disability. He asked the lower court to apply the doctrine of "equitable tolling," a principal adopted by other circuit courts in a variety of contexts.
AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys joined the Paralyzed Veterans of America in filing a joint "friend of the court" brief noting that more than half of the veterans who file claims with the Veterans Court are not represented by attorneys. Procedural rules and timelines — often difficult for even trained attorneys to navigate — are all the more difficult for those veterans without counsel and particularly for those with mental disabilities. There are approximately 17 million veterans age 50 and older, and the number of veterans over age 85 is projected to increase 32% by 2018.
As one federal court had previously found, "It would be both ironic and inhumane to rigidly implement [the law] because the condition preventing a veteran from timely filing is often the same illness for which compensation is sought." Noting that many veterans with severe disabilities could be hospitalized and rehabilitating for well more than 120 days without regular access to mail, AARP's brief pointed out that other courts have specifically found the 120-day period for an appeal to be short, especially considering that most claimants are unrepresented.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. "We do not find any clear indication that the 120-day limit was intended to carry the harsh consequences" that would have accompanied refusal to consider Mr. Henderson's claim.
What's at Stake
More than 3 million veterans receive disability compensation. Over half of the veterans with service-related disabilities are older than 55. The Veterans Administration's own Strategic Plan recognizes that increasing disability levels, the changing nature of service-related injuries and disabilities, and an aging veteran population is going to present unprecedented challenges.
The problem is particularly acute for older veterans, who suffer not only the lingering effects of lifelong service-related disabilities, but recurrences of some types of mental disabilities (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, for example) and later-in-life complications arising from traumatic brain injury. Older veterans are also particularly susceptible to depression and similar conditions — a recent study of nearly 300,000 veterans over age 55 revealed that older vets with depression are more likely to develop dementia.
Status of the Case
After holding that the deadline for filing a notice of appeal with the Veterans Court was not an absolute bar to a veteran's claim for benefits, Henderson v. Shinseki was remanded to the lower court to determine if Mr. Henderson had good cause to miss the procedural deadline.