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Fed. Cir. Finds Navy Commander's Disability Claims Time-Barred

From 1977 to 1996, Commander Judith Cronin was an active-duty Navy officer. Throughout her service, she had several ailments, ranging from heel spurs to PTSD. In 1996, she was placed on a Temporary Disability Retired List (TRDL), and by 2000, she was permanently retired due to her physical condition. Cronin filed suit to challenge this determination.

Over the course of several appeals, the case went back and forth. The question before the Federal Circuit this time was whether Cronin's non-PTSD claims were time-barred. The Federal Circuit, reversing the Court of Federal Claims' decision, said they were.

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What's 'Active Duty'?

Did the four years she spent on the TDRL toll the statute of limitations for filing a claim alleging that the Navy was wrong to permanently retire her? Apparently not. Cronin first filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims in 2006, which would be well outside the six-year statute of limitations if her claim accrued in 1996, but inside the limit if that four years isn't counted.

The statute of limitations tolls when a service member is on "active duty," so the question is whether she was on "active duty" or "absent from duty" during those four years. The court here found she was absent because "the military cannot order her back to active service, even if the sickness, injury, leave, or other cause for having stopped active service no longer prevents active service. For the Navy to return her to active duty, she must 'consent.'"

This interpretation was reinforced by other statutes, such as those governing military pay, which provide for a retirement level (not an active duty level) of pay when a service member is placed on the TDRL. Before a service member is placed on the TDRL, he or she is considered active duty. Afterwards, not so much. The statutes "underscore the distinction between absences from a still extant duty and the status of a service member once placed on the Temporary Disability Retired List."

Dissent

Judge Richard Linn dissented on the statute of limitations issue. Acknowledging that courts aren't sure how to categorize placement on the TDRL, Linn said there was no support for making the decision the majority did. He distinguished "active duty" from "military service" because the former is actually a constituent of the latter. Cases dealing with "active duty" are therefore not dispositive, because such service is merely a component of "military service," which is what the statute of limitations refers to.

There is a tremendous split on how this type of case should be handled; consequently, you haven't seen the last of Commander Cronin.

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