The United States Supreme Court does not often hear cases from the veterans claims system, but it recently issued a decision in Henderson v. Shinseki that was favorable to veterans, though the claimant in this case is not completely out of the woods.
All appellate systems have prescribed periods for appealing to a higher court. In many instances the filing of a document to initiate the appeal, a notice of appeal (NOA), is “jurisdictional,” meaning that failure to file it properly deprives the court of the power to hear the appeal. The issue for the Supreme Court was whether Mr. Henderson’s claim had suffered this fatal blow when, because of a paranoid schizophrenic episode, he missed the filing deadline for his appeal to the Veterans Court. That court and the Federal Circuit above it held that this failure required dismissal of the claim.
The Supreme Court reversed, however. It recognized that veterans’ appeals are part of a unique administrative scheme, and it said that the statute containing the appeal deadline indicated Congressional concern for veterans, such that Congress would not have intended the deadline to be jurisdictional.
The high court noted that the deadline was an important rule, however, and it sent the case back for further consideration as to whether there was any exception that should be applied. There is a principle called “equitable tolling” that may allow the court to hear the appeal if it is found that ultimate fairness and justice so requires.
While it is a victory for veterans that the court allowed for the possibility of some exceptions to the strict deadline, there is no assurance in advance that an exception would apply. This reinforces the crucial importance of filing a notice of appeal on time and in the proper place.
To appeal to the Veterans Court from the agency (Board of Veterans’ Appeals), the notice must be filed within 120 days of the Board’s decision and it is filed with (sent to) the Veterans Court itself, not the agency. To appeal from the Veterans Court to the Federal Circuit, one has 60 days from the entry of judgment by the Veterans Court (usually about 21-22 days after the decision), but the filing is made with the Veterans Court, not the Federal Circuit.