26 Jun 2023 • Military.com • By Patricia Kime
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear a case on the handling of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs — a proceeding that could provide additional education benefits for roughly 1.7 million veterans.
The court announced Monday that it would hear the case, Rudisill v. McDonough, which argues that service members enrolled in different versions of the GI Bill — in Rudisill’s case, the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill — should be entitled to benefits under both programs up to a maximum of four years.
James Rudisill, while serving as an enlisted soldier, used 25 of his 36 months of eligibility under the Montgomery GI Bill to earn his undergraduate degree. He later became a commissioned officer and signed up for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, but he never used it while on active duty.
After he left the Army, however, he applied to Yale Divinity School, intending to pay for it with his Post-9/11 benefits, and return to the Army as a chaplain. He believed he had 23 months of additional education benefits under a Korean War-era law that allows veterans to use benefits from any individual programs or combination up to 48 months.
But the VA said he only rated nine additional months, for a total of 36 — the maximum allowable amount for each program – saying the law that created the Post-9/11 GI Bill limited entitlement to one program or the other, based on the veteran’s choice.
Rudisill went to court, and a federal district court agreed. The VA appealed, and in 2021, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the ruling.
The VA then petitioned for the case to be heard by the full U.S. Court of Appeals, which overturned the previous rulings. The court issued an opinion saying that if a veteran has used some benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill program and elected to receive benefits under the Post-9/11 program, the benefits would be limited to one month, or a partial month, of entitlement under the Post-9/11 GI Bill for each month of unused benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill.
In their decision, the judges wrote that the statute was “unambiguous.”
But Rudisill’s attorneys said judges weren’t looking at the entirety of the law, and they filed a petition to the Supreme Court.
“The [Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit] missed the forest for the trees. They missed the core protections in the GI bills going back to the original, which is that those who served in multiple qualified periods of service get to have the benefits of full benefits from those two periods of service up to 48 months,” Misha Tseytlin, an attorney with the national law firm Troutman Pepper, said during an interview with Military.com.
After the court announcement on Monday, Rudisill said during an interview with Military.com that he felt “relieved, elated … a whole pot of adjectives I could probably choose from,” and that he continued his suit for the veterans he served alongside in combat.
Rudisill, who served across three periods of active duty — from 2000 to 2002 in the Army, 2004 to 2005 in the Army National Guard and from 2007 to 2011 as an Army officer — lost his spot at Yale but continued his divinity education while working as a special agent for the FBI.
He estimates, by his calculations, that he may still have a year of education benefits left. But, he adds, he continued the fight for other veterans in a similar situation.
“It was just the right thing to do. Over and over again, the VA has shown me and my buddies that I went to Iraq and Afghanistan with … that if they are not held to account, these kinds of transgressions they make against the demographic they supposedly support [will] continue to happen,” Rudisill said.
Rudisill’s legal team must submit a brief to the court in the next 45 days. The Justice Department then has an opportunity to respond. Timothy McHugh, also an attorney with Troutman Pepper working on the case, said he expects oral arguments to take place in November or December.
He expressed optimism for his client and the veterans the case represents, saying that the justices likely wouldn’t have taken the case if they agreed with the appellate court’s decision.
“I think that’s a significant sign that the court has decided to take this up,” McHugh said.