The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] 8-0 in Henderson v. Shinseki [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that the 120-day statute of limitations for challenging a denial of veteran's benefits is not jurisdictional. In its decision, the court overruled the decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which had affirmed [opinion, PDF] the holding of the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims that the 120-day period was jurisdictional and thus, not subject to equitable tolling. Both of the prior court decisions resulting in the dismissal of veteran Henderson's claim were based on the Supreme Court's decision in Bowles v. Russell [opinion text]. There, the court held that Bowles' untimely notice of appeal deprived the Sixth Circuit of jurisdiction as Congress had expressly provided a specific amount of time by which the district courts can extend the notice of appeal. In its decision today, the Supreme Court declined to follow the precedent in Bowles, distinguishing it from Henderson in that the former involved a review by Article III courts in the context of ordinary civil litigation, while the latter involved review by an Article I tribunal, which Congress created for the adjudication of veterans' benefits claims. Additionally, the court distinguished between the time limit provisions at issue in Bowles and similar cases and the one at issue in Henderson. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court, stated:
Because the time for taking an appeal from a district court to a court of appeals in a civil case has long been understood to be jurisdictional, this language clearly signals an intent to impose the same restrictions on appeals from the Veterans Court to the Federal Circuit. But the 120-day limit at issue in this case is not framed in comparable terms. It is true that § 7266 is cast in mandatory language, but we have rejected the notion that "all mandatory prescriptions, however emphatic, are ... properly typed jurisdictional."Alito also supported the court's decision to limit the characterization of procedural rules as "jurisdictional" by discussing the consequences that attach to that label and the court's recent attempts to not refer to a rule as such "unless it governs a court's adjudicatory capacity, that is, its subject-matter or personal jurisdiction." Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
David Henderson was a veteran of the Korean War who received a 100 percent disability rating for paranoid schizophrenia from the VA in 1992. In 2001, he filed a claim for supplemental benefits based on his need for in-home care, which both the VA regional office and the Board of Appeals denied. Thereafter, he filed a notice of appeal with the Veteran's Court, but did so 15 days after the 120-day filing period. As a result of the late filing and his inability to attribute it to his illness, Henderson's appeal was dismissed. However, the Veteran's Court later granted Henderson's motion for reconsideration, but during this time, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Bowles, which the court found to be controlling, thereby dismissing his appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Henderson then appealed to the Federal Circuit, where a divided en banc court affirmed the previous decision of the Veteran's Court.