Justia Summary

Approximately 30 years after Arellano’s honorable discharge from the Navy, a VA regional office granted Arellano service-connected disability benefits for his psychiatric disorders. Applying the default rule in 38 U.S.C. 5110(a)(1), the VA assigned an effective date of June 3, 2011—the day that it received Arellano's claim—to the award. Arellano argued that the effective date should be governed by an exception in section 5110(b)(1), which makes the effective date the day following the date of the veteran’s discharge or release if the application “is received within one year from such date of discharge or release.” Alleging that he had been too ill to know that he could apply for benefits, Arellano maintained that this exception’s one-year grace period should be equitably tolled to make his award effective the day after his 1981 discharge.

The Board of Veterans’ Appeals, Veterans Court, Federal Circuit, and Supreme Court disagreed. Section 5110(b)(1) is not subject to equitable tolling. Equitably tolling one of the limited exceptions would depart from the terms that Congress “specifically provided.” The exceptions do not operate simply as time constraints, but also as substantive limitations on the amount of recovery due. Congress has already considered equitable concerns and limited the relief available, aware of the possibility that disability could delay an application for benefits.