The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday issued an opinion in a low-profile railroad benefits rights case likely to act as a harbinger for numerous future decisions due to the relatively unusual and decidedly novel partisan makeup of the justices.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for a 5-4 majority, decided the case in favor of former Union Pacific Railroad carpenter and assistant foreman Manfredo Salinas, a serially-disabled veteran of the nation’s railways who has suffered several serious on-the-job injuries since the ’80s. Despite his tenure and continued service, even after each spine-altering injury, Salinas was consistently denied benefits by the much-better-paid bureaucrats sitting atop the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board over the course of the past 30 years.
Joining the court’s furthest left justice in the decision was, in order of ideology, liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, centrist Justice Elena Kagan, center-right Chief Justice John Roberts, and conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The dissent was authored by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by fellow conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett. The ruling marks nascent Justice Barrett’s first recorded dissent in an opinion issued by the nation’s high court.
Stylized as Salinas v. U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, the somewhat limited majority opinion held that Salinas can petition a federal court to review the board’s prior denial of benefits based on language contained in two separate statutes: (1) the Railroad Retirement Act (RRA); and (2) the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA).
The majority determined that both statutes–though based in two separate laws–were necessary for understanding how to finally dispense with retirement and disability claims under the RRA because the RRA explicitly refers to the RUIA in a relevant section. Notably, the dissent all-but concedes that point as well.
The opinion notes the first half of decades-long adversity that Salinas has faced:
During his 15-year railroad career, he suffered two serious injuries on the job. In 1989, a co-worker dropped a sledge hammer from an overhead bridge, hitting Salinas on the top of his hardhat. Then, in 1993, a wooden railroad tie fell from a truck and struck Salinas in the head. As a result, Salinas underwent two spinal fusion surgeries. After receiving treatment, Salinas continued to experience pain, anxiety, and depression. He began seeking RRA disability benefits in 1992. His first two applications were denied, and he did not seek reconsideration of either.
On February 28, 2006, Salinas filed his third application for RRA benefits. The Board denied Salinas’ application on August 28, 2006, concluding that his impairments were not severe enough to qualify for relief.
Then, in 2013, some administrative magic happened. Salinas applied for the fourth time and his benefits were finally approved. But, still, in line with the pattern previously established by the board’s office employees, the decision wasn’t entirely in his favor.
“Although Salinas was deemed disabled as of October 9, 2010, his benefits began on December 1, 2012, 12 months prior to the date on which he filed his successful application,” Sotomayor notes. “Under the RRA, disability benefits begin on the latest of several alternative start dates, and Salinas’ application-based start date was later than his disability onset date.”
Finally armed with a positive decision, Salinas timely petitioned the railroad board for review of his 2006 denial. He was summarily shut down by the decision-makers during each part of what Sotomayor explains is a “four-step sequence” making up “the primary form of administrative review for benefits determinations.” The final step is an appeal to the railroad board itself.
After that appeal was denied, Salinas asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reopen his 2006 claim and the court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction because the judges there didn’t believe they were allowed to adjudicate such claims. The Supreme Court took up the case because other circuits have ruled differently and the nine justices decided to end the circuit split.
Ultimately, the majority opinion relied on easy-to-understand logic that links the two statutes–the RRA and the RUIA–at issue.
“Section 231g of the RRA provides that…'[d]ecisions of the Board determining the rights or liabilities of any person’ under the RRA ‘shall be subject to judicial review in the same manner, subject to the same limitations, and all provisions of law shall apply in the same manner as though the decision were a determination of corresponding rights or liabilities under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act,'” Sotomayor notes. “In other words, §231g makes judicial review available under the RRA to the same extent that review is available under the RUIA.”
Therefore the majority found that the be-all, end-all provision for determining judicial review in railroad disability cases is §355(f) of the RUIA, which says, in relevant part, that any “claimant” is allowed to “obtain a review of any final decision of the Board.”
The majority opinion naturally flowed after finding the railroad board’s denial to reopen Salinas’s case a final decision under the law.
“The Board’s refusal to reopen the prior denial of benefits satisfies these criteria,” Sotomayor writes–citing precedent. “First, the decision was the ‘terminal event’ in the Board’s administrative review process. After first requesting reopening before the Bureau, Salinas exhausted further agency review by appealing to the Board itself. Salinas’ only recourse thereafter was to seek judicial review.”
Several complaints were lodged by the railroad board. But none were found convincing by the five justices who ruled in Salinas’s favor. Suffering particular scorn from the majority was the railroad board’s claim that they were already nice enough to give the man a formal denial–and didn’t even have to do that.
Sotomayor excoriated that line of argument. Again the opinion:
Finally, the Board argues that the opportunity to seek re-opening is a matter of administrative grace, and such solicitous discretion should not be discouraged by allowing judicial review. But the fact that the Board could decline to offer reopening does not mean that, having chosen to provide it, the Board may avoid the plain text of §355(f ). See Hawkes Co., 578 U. S., at 602 (“[S]uch a ‘count your blessings’ argument is not an adequate rejoinder to the assertion of a right to judicial review”). Whether the availability of judicial review will affect how the Board exercises its discretion is a question properly reserved for Congress.
Justice Thomas’s dissent called the majority opinion “doubly incorrect because it creates a new form of judicial review in a context where it is not clear how it can be exercised.”
“What standards a court could use to review Board decisions denying reopening remain elusive,” Thomas, Barrett, Gorsuch and Alito contended. “There are no statutory cues to guide review—indeed, it is not altogether clear that the Board has authority to reopen its final decisions.”
“Because the Board’s decision below did not determine any right or liability, the RRA does not provide for judicial review. I respectfully dissent,” the dissent concluded.
[image via Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]
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