Focusing on protections and solicitude for Veterans (with analogies to Social Security claimants), the Supreme Court backed away from the holding in its 5:4 opinion in Bowles v. Russell,
551 U.S. 205 (2007), that courts do not have equitable powers to excuse a late filing of an appeal. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Alito (with Kagan recused), the Court held that the deadline for filing a notice of appeal from the agency denial of Veterans Benefits to the federal court was not jurisdictional, leaving for remand the question of equitable tolling. Henderson v. Shenseki, 2011 WL 691592 (Mar. 1, 2011).
In 1992, the Veterans Administration (VA) gave Dave Henderson, a Korean War Veteran, a 100% disability rating for paranoid schizophrenia. In 2001, he applied for supplemental benefits based on a need for in-home care. His claim was denied, and he missed the deadline for filing an appeal with the Veterans Court by 15 days. The Veterans Court applied equitable tolling and set the case for argument. While his appeal was pending, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Bowles, holding that there could be no equitable tolling for a prisoner who missed the deadline for filing an appeal from district court to the circuit court of appeals. Based on Bowles, a divided panel of the Veterans Court held that it lacked jurisdiction and dismissed the appeal, and a divided en banc Federal Circuit court affirmed.
As in many of the Court’s access decisions, the Court laid the question at the feet of Congress. The Court posited that whether a “claims-processing” rule, such as a deadline for filing, was jurisdictional, was up to Congress. Congress “need not use magic words,” and the context, including the Court’s interpretation of similar provisions, was relevant. The court focused on the words used by Congress for the appeal from the administrative agency to the court which set forth a 120-day time for filing an appeal and found this language to not impart congressional intent to make the deadline jurisdictional. The Court pointed in contrast to other provisions which were contained under the heading of “Jurisdiction.”
The Court distinguished Bowles and other precedent by noting that the Veterans Benefits appeal go to an Article I tribunal instead of general courts of jurisdiction under Article III. The Court also indicated that an appeal from an administrative proceeding to court was different from an appeal from district court to an appellate court.
The Court analogized the Veterans Benefits program to Social Security disability benefits. The Court stated that both programs are “unusually protective” of claimants, citing several Social Security cases. The court noted that equitable tolling had been permitted for Social Security deadlines.
Then, turning to the context of Veterans Benefits, the Court quoted a 1961 case for the principle that “The solicitude of Congress for veterans is of longstanding.” United States v. Oregon, 366 U. S. 643, 647 (1961). The Court quoted another case for the principle that statutory provisions involving benefits for Veterans “are to be construed in the beneficiaries’ favor.” King v. St. Vincent’s Hospital, 502 U. S. 215, 220–221, n. 9 (1991). The Court noted that the VA is charged with responsibility to assist Veterans who seek benefits, and the administrative appeal process is “informal and non-adversarial.” The Court concluded that treating the 120-day time limit as jurisdictional would “clash sharply” with this scheme.