Access to Justice

Arellano v. McDonough

In Arellano v. McDonough, the Supreme Court considered whether a one-year deadline for veterans to submit claims for retroactive compensation for service-connected disabilities can be extended under principles of equitable tolling.

Case Summary

Petitioner Adolfo Arellano is a veteran of the United States Navy and served for almost four years before being honorably discharged in 1981. During his service, he worked on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Midway, an aircraft carrier that collided with a freighter in the Persian Gulf during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Arellano watched in horror as the collision crushed some of his shipmates and swept others overboard. Due to this traumatic experience, Arellano suffered from a variety of mental illnesses, which, as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determined, rendered him “completely disabled.”

Although Arellano’s disability began the year after his discharge from the Navy, his mental illnesses prevented him from recognizing his entitlement to disability compensation until 2011. While the VA agreed that Arellano’s service-connected injuries rendered him completely disabled in the year after his discharge, it refused to award him retroactive benefits because he did not apply within the one-year statutory deadline for benefits under 38 U.S.C. § 5110(b)(1). Arellano appealed the VA’s decision, arguing that the legal doctrine of equitable tolling excused his failure to meet Section 5110(b)(1)’s one-year deadline. Equitable tolling is a legal doctrine that tolls, or pauses, a time period in which an action needs to be taken when a party is prevented from taking that action by circumstances outside of their control. The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims rejected that claim, holding that equitable tolling is never available for the deadline for retroactive benefits, even if the facts of Arellano’s case might otherwise justify tolling. The Federal Circuit, sitting en banc, affirmed the judgment and divided equally on the question of whether equitable tolling is categorically unavailable in this context. Arellano asked the Supreme Court to hear his case, and it agreed to do so. On May 20, 2022, CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Arellano.

Our brief made three main points.

First, our brief explained that the doctrine of equitable tolling has deep roots in our legal tradition. Originally at common law, there was virtually no limit on when a cause of action might be brought, but over time, legislators began to incorporate statutory limits on when certain rights could be enforced. These limits were mainly justified as an attempt to suppress fraudulent claims and alleviate evidentiary burdens that accrue over time. Despite these justifications, courts of equity quickly began permitting exceptions to these deadlines when extenuating circumstances prevented parties from bringing claims in a timely manner. In the Founding era and afterwards, American courts followed these principles and permitted tolling of statutory deadlines in equitable circumstances, provided that the plaintiff had exercised due diligence.

Second, our brief explained that the doctrine of equitable tolling is so deeply embedded in our system of law that the Supreme Court has recognized that Congress drafts statutory limits with equitable tolling as a “background principle.” Because of this, the Court has consistently recognized that equitable tolling is available in a wide variety of circumstances, and it has held that equitable tolling is available for statutory deadlines that further the same basic policies as a statute of limitations, even if they do not function exactly like a statute of limitations.

Finally, our brief explained why equitable tolling should be available in the context of Section 5110(b)(1). As the provision’s text and history make clear, the one-year deadline for retroactive benefits was put in place for the same reasons statutes of limitations are typically enacted: to encourage quick filing and forestall the evidentiary burdens imposed by long-delayed claims. In addition to serving the same purpose as a statute of limitations, Section 5110(b)(1) is part of the type of claimant-protective scheme in which the presumption in favor of tolling is most applicable. Thus, the decision of the court below that equitable tolling is categorically unavailable in this context is at odds with Supreme Court precedent and equitable tolling’s long history in our legal tradition.

On January 23, 2023, the Supreme Court held that equitable tolling was not available in this case. While it acknowledged that Section 5110(b)(1) may be a statute of limitations to which the presumption of tolling could apply, the Court held that the presumption of equitable tolling is rebutted in this case. By providing detailed instructions about when a veteran may receive retroactive benefits, the Court reasoned, the statute demonstrates that Congress did not want the equitable tolling doctrine to apply.

Case Timeline

  • May 20, 2022

    CAC files amicus curiae brief

    Sup. Ct. Amicus Br.
  • October 4, 2022

    Supreme Court hears oral arguments

  • January 23, 2023

    Supreme Court issues its decision

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