Henderson v. Shinseki

Decision Date01 March 2011
Docket NumberNo. 09–1036.,09–1036.
Citation131 S.Ct. 1197,562 U.S. 428,179 L.Ed.2d 159
Parties Doretha H. HENDERSON, authorized representative of David L. HENDERSON, Deceased, v. Eric K. SHINSEKI, Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Motion of Doretha H. Henderson, the authorized representative of David L. Henderson, to be substituted as petitioner granted.

Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of this motion.

Thomas W. Stoever, Jr., Arnold & Porter LLP, Denver, CO, Lisa S. Blatt, Counsel of Record, Anthony Franze, R. Stanton Jones, Robert J. Katerberg, R. Reeves Anderson, Arnold & Porter LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Will A. Gunn, General Counsel, David J. Barrans, Y. Ken Lee, Attorneys, Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, D.C., Neal Kumar Katyal, Acting Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Tony West, Assistant Attorney General, Malcolm L. Stewart, Deputy Solicitor General, Eric D. Miller, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Jeanne E. Davidson, Todd M. Hughes, Attorneys, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

A veteran whose claim for federal benefits is denied by the Board of Veterans' Appeals may appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (Veterans Court). To do so, the veteran must file a notice of appeal with the Veterans Court within 120 days after the date when the Board's final decision is properly mailed. 38 U.S.C. § 7266(a). This case presents the question whether a veteran's failure to file a notice of appeal within the 120–day period should be regarded as having "jurisdictional" consequences. We hold that it should not.

I
A

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) administers the federal program that provides benefits to veterans with service-connected disabilities. The VA has a two-step process for the adjudication of these claims. First, a VA regional office receives and processes veterans' claims and makes an initial decision on whether to grant or deny benefits. Second, if a veteran is dissatisfied with the regional office's decision, the veteran may obtain de novo review by the Board of Veterans' Appeals. The Board is a body within the VA that makes the agency's final decision in cases appealed to it. §§ 7101, 7104(a).

The VA's adjudicatory "process is designed to function throughout with a high degree of informality and solicitude for the claimant." Walters v. National Assn. of Radiation Survivors, 473 U.S. 305, 311, 105 S.Ct. 3180, 87 L.Ed.2d 220 (1985). A veteran faces no time limit for filing a claim, and once a claim is filed, the VA's process for adjudicating it at the regional office and the Board is ex parte and nonadversarial, 38 CFR §§ 3.103(a), 20.700(c) (2010). The VA has a statutory duty to assist veterans in developing the evidence necessary to substantiate their claims. 38 U.S.C. §§ 5103(a) (2006 ed., Supp. III), 5103A (2006 ed.). And when evaluating claims, the VA must give veterans the "benefit of the doubt" whenever positive and negative evidence on a material issue is roughly equal. § 5107(b). If a regional office denies a claim, the veteran has a generous one-year time limit to initiate an appeal to the Board. § 7105(b)(1); 38 CFR § 20.302(a). A veteran may also reopen a previously denied claim at any time by presenting "new and material evidence," 38 U.S.C. § 5108, and decisions by a regional office or the Board are subject to challenge at any time based on "clear and unmistakable error," §§ 5109A, 7111.

Before 1988, a veteran whose claim was rejected by the VA was generally unable to obtain further review. 38 U.S.C. § 211(a) (1988 ed.).1 But the Veterans' Judicial Review Act (VJRA), 102 Stat. 4105 (codified, as amended, in various sections of 38 U.S.C. (2006 ed. and Supp. III)), created the Veterans Court, an Article I tribunal, and authorized that court to review Board decisions adverse to veterans.2 §§ 7251, 7252(a) (2006 ed.). While proceedings before the Veterans Court are adversarial, see § 7263, veterans have a remarkable record of success before that tribunal. Statistics compiled by the Veterans Court show that in the last decade, the court ordered some form of relief in around 79 percent of its "merits decisions."3

Review of Veterans Court decisions on certain issues of law is available in the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. § 7292. Federal Circuit decisions may in turn be reviewed by this Court by writ of certiorari.

B

David Henderson served in the military during the Korean War. In 1992, the VA gave Henderson a 100–percent disability rating for paranoid schizophrenia, and in 2001, he filed a claim for supplemental benefits based on his need for in-home care. After a VA regional office and the Board denied his claim, he filed a notice of appeal with the Veterans Court, but he missed the 120–day filing deadline by 15 days. See § 7266(a).

The Veterans Court initially dismissed Henderson's appeal as untimely. It concluded that Henderson was not entitled to equitable tolling of the deadline because he had not shown that his illness had caused his tardy filing. Later, the court granted Henderson's motion for reconsideration, revoked the dismissal, and set the case for argument. While Henderson's appeal was pending, however, we decided Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205, 127 S.Ct. 2360, 168 L.Ed.2d 96 (2007). In Bowles, we held that the statutory limitation on the length of an extension of the time to file a notice of appeal in an ordinary civil case, 28 U.S.C. § 2107(c) (2006 ed., Supp. III), is "jurisdictional," and we therefore held that a party's failure to file a notice of appeal within that period could not be excused based on equitable factors, or on the opposing party's forfeiture or waiver of any objection to the late filing. Bowles, supra, at 213–214, 127 S.Ct. 2360.

After we announced our decision in Bowles, the Veterans Court directed the parties to brief that decision's effect on prior Federal Circuit precedent that allowed the equitable tolling of the 120–day deadline for filing a notice of appeal in the Veterans Court. A divided panel of the Veterans Court concluded that Bowles compelled jurisdictional treatment of the 120–day deadline and dismissed Henderson's untimely appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Henderson v. Peake, 22 Vet.App. 217 (2008).

Henderson then appealed to the Federal Circuit, and a divided en banc court affirmed. 589 F.3d 1201 (2009). We granted certiorari. 561 U.S. ––––, 130 S.Ct. 3502, 177 L.Ed.2d 1089 (2010).

II

In this case, as in others that have come before us in recent years, we must decide whether a procedural rule is "jurisdictional." See Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, 559 U.S. 154, 130 S.Ct. 1237, 176 L.Ed.2d 17 (2010) ; Union Pacific R. Co. v. Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Gen. Comm. of Adjustment, Central Region, 558 U.S. 67, 130 S.Ct. 584, 175 L.Ed.2d 428 (2009) ; Bowles,supra; Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 126 S.Ct. 1235, 163 L.Ed.2d 1097 (2006) ; Eberhart v. United States, 546 U.S. 12, 126 S.Ct. 403, 163 L.Ed.2d 14 (2005)(per curiam); Scarborough v. Principi, 541 U.S. 401, 124 S.Ct. 1856, 158 L.Ed.2d 674 (2004) ; Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 124 S.Ct. 906, 157 L.Ed.2d 867 (2004). This question is not merely semantic but one of considerable practical importance for judges and litigants. Branding a rule as going to a court's subject-matter jurisdiction alters the normal operation of our adversarial system. Under that system, courts are generally limited to addressing the claims and arguments advanced by the parties. See Sanchez–Llamas v. Oregon, 548 U.S. 331, 356–357, 126 S.Ct. 2669, 165 L.Ed.2d 557 (2006). Courts do not usually raise claims or arguments on their own. But federal courts have an independent obligation to ensure that they do not exceed the scope of their jurisdiction, and therefore they must raise and decide jurisdictional questions that the parties either overlook or elect not to press. See Arbaugh, supra, at 514, 126 S.Ct. 1235.

Jurisdictional rules may also result in the waste of judicial resources and may unfairly prejudice litigants. For purposes of efficiency and fairness, our legal system is replete with rules requiring that certain matters be raised at particular times. See Sanchez–Llamas, supra, at 356–357, 126 S.Ct. 2669. Objections to subject-matter jurisdiction, however, may be raised at any time. Thus, a party, after losing at trial, may move to dismiss the case because the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. Arbaugh, 546 U.S., at 508, 126 S.Ct. 1235. Indeed, a party may raise such an objection even if the party had previously acknowledged the trial court's jurisdiction. Ibid. And if the trial court lacked jurisdiction, many months of work on the part of the attorneys and the court may be wasted.

Because the consequences that attach to the jurisdictional label may be so drastic, we have tried in recent cases to bring some discipline to the use of this term. We have urged that a rule should not be referred to as jurisdictional unless it governs a court's adjudicatory capacity, that is, its subject-matter or personal jurisdiction. Reed Elsevier,supra, at ––––, 130 S.Ct., at 1243–1244; Kontrick, supra, at 455, 124 S.Ct. 906. Other rules, even if important and mandatory, we have said, should not be given the jurisdictional brand. See Union Pacific, 558 U.S., at ––––, 130 S.Ct., at 596.

Among the types of rules that should not be described as jurisdictional are what we have called "claim-processing rules." These are rules that seek to promote the orderly progress of litigation by requiring that the parties take certain procedural steps at certain specified times. Id., at ––––, 130 S.Ct., at 597; Eberhart, supra, at 19, 126 S.Ct. 403; Scarborough, supra, at 413–414, 124 S.Ct. 1856; Kontrick, supra, at 455–456, 124 S.Ct. 906. Filing deadlines, such as the 120–day filing deadline at issue here, are quintessential...

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