Veterans Victory in the Supreme Court
David Henderson was a Korean War veteran. He was discharged from active duty in 1952 due to paranoid schizophrenia. In 1992, the VA gave him a 100% disability rating, and in 2001 (while living in North Carolina) he filed a claim for supplemental benefits to help with the cost of in-home care related to his severe mental illness. His claim for disability benefits was denied, and he was given 120 days to appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (“Veterans Court”). He missed the deadline by 15 days and lost his right to appeal.
Henderson argued he was late filing his appeal because he was bedridden due to his service-related disability. The Supreme Court reviewed the case to determine whether the Veterans Court is allowed to make exceptions and extend filing deadlines for disability-related and other equitable reasons. In a unanimous decision issued on March 1, the Supreme Court Justices held that Henderson should not have automatically lost his right to appeal, and that the Veterans Court can make exceptions to the deadline for equitable reasons.
In making its decision, the Court found that the 120-day deadline for appeals to the Veterans Court should not be applied as rigidly as deadlines in civil court cases. This is because veterans claims are different than civil litigation. The veterans’ claims process is largely non-adversarial, and Veterans Courts were created by Congress as part of a unique administrative scheme for the adjudication of those claims. Further, veterans are entitled to special protections. As Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the court opinion, “The VA 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.”
AARP reports that the Veterans Court has dismissed more than 200 cases like Henderson’s since 2008, and that more than half of all veterans who file claims do so without legal representation.