Divided Court Rules U.S. Railroad Retirement Board Decision Subject to Judicial Review
In Salinas v. United States Railroad Retirement Board, 592 U. S. ____ (2021), a divided U.S. Supreme Court held that a refusal by the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board to reopen a prior benefits determination is subject to judicial review. The decision represents the first 5-to-4 split in a case argued during the Court’s 2020-21 term.
The Railroad Retirement Act of 1974 (RRA) establishes a system of disability, retirement, and survivor benefits for railroad employees. The system is administered by the U. S. Railroad Retirement Board (Board).
Section 231g of the RRA provides:
Decisions of the Board determining the rights or liabilities of any person under this subchapter 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 [45 U.S.C. 351 et seq.] except that the time within which proceedings for the review of a decision with respect to an annuity, supplemental annuity, or lump-sum benefit may be commenced shall be one year after the decision will have been entered upon the records of the Board and communicated to the claimant.
The RUIA’s judicial review provision, 45 U.S.C. §355(f), provides: “Any claimant, or any railway labor organization organized in accordance with the provisions of the Railway Labor Act . . . , of which claimant is a member, or any base-year employer of the claimant, or any other party aggrieved by a final decision under subsection (c) of this section, may . . . obtain a review of any final decision of the Board.”
Facts of the Case
In 1992, petitioner Manfredo M. Salinas began seeking disability benefits under the RRA based on serious injuries he suffered during his 15-year career with the Union Pacific Railroad. Salinas’ first three applications were denied, but he was granted benefits after he filed his fourth application in 2013. He timely sought reconsideration of the amount and start date of his benefits. After reconsideration was denied, he filed an administrative appeal, arguing that his third application, filed in 2006, should be reopened because the Board had not considered certain medical records. An intermediary of the Board denied the request to reopen because it was not made “[w]ithin four years” of the 2006 decision, and the Board affirmed.
Salinas sought review with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction, holding that federal courts can’t review the Board’s refusal to reopen a prior benefits determination. The Fifth Circuit noted a longstanding split among the Circuits on this issue.
By a vote of 5-4, the Court held that the Board’s refusal to reopen a prior benefits determination is subject to judicial review. Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored the majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh.
In reaching its decision, the majority noted that to qualify for judicial review under 45 U.S.C. §355(f ), the Board’s refusal to reopen its denial of Salinas’ 2006 application must constitute “any final decision of the Board.” It went on to conclude that it does.
As Justice Sotomayor explained, the phrase “any final decision” is broad and reflects Congress’ intent that it be interpreted broadly. Citing Smith v. Berryhill, 587 U. S. ___, ___ (2019), she added that the phrase also “denotes some kind of terminal event,” such as the “final stage of review.” Justice Sotomayor further highlighted that similar language in the Administrative Procedure Act has been interpreted to refer to an agency action that “both (1) mark[s] the consummation of the agency’s decision making process and (2) is one by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.”
According to the majority, the Board’s refusal to reopen the prior denial of benefits satisfies these criteria. First, the decision was the “terminal event” in the Board’s administrative review process. As Justice Sotomayor noted, after appealing the intermediary’s denial of reopening to the Board, Salinas’ only recourse was to seek judicial review. Second, the features of a reopening decision make it one “ by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.” For example, a reopening is defined as “a conscious determination . . . to reconsider an otherwise final decision for purposes of revising that decision.” It therefore entails substantive changes that affect benefits and obligations under the RRA. The Board reads §355(f )’s earlier reference to “any other party aggrieved by a final decision under subsection (c)” to mean that each authorized party may seek review of only “a final decision under” §355(c). Section 355(f ), however, uses the broad phrase “any final decision” without tying it to the earlier reference to §355(c). According to the majority, this is a “notable omission,” since Congress used such limiting language elsewhere in Section 355.
The majority next determined that any ambiguity in the meaning of “any final decision” must be resolved in Salinas’ favor under the “strong presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action.” Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, 575 U.S. 480 (2015). While the Board argued that various cross-references within §355 prove that §355(f ) and §355(c) are coextensive. The majority pointed out that there are several indications that §355(f ) is broader than §355(c). Accordingly, it concluded that the Board failed to satisfy the “heavy burden” of showing that the statute’s “language or structure” forecloses judicial review.
The majority rejected several other arguments raised by the Board. First, it dismissed the Board’s attempt to analogize §355(f ) to the judicial-review provision addressed in Califano v. Sanders, 430 U.S. 99 (1977), noting that the latter provision contains an express limitation that §355(f ) does not, distinguishing Califano from this case. Second, the majority rejected the Board’s argument that reopening does not qualify for judicial review because it is simply a “refusal to make a new determination” of rights or liabilities, like the denial of reopening in Your Home Visiting Nurse Services, Inc. v. Shalala, 525 U.S. 449 (1999). In support, justice Sotomayor emphasized that the statute in Your Home did not implicate the presumption in favor of judicial review and was narrower than §231g, which simply incorporates §355(f ) into the RRA. Finally, the majority held that the fact that the Board could decline to offer reopening did not mean that, having chosen to provide it, the Board may avoid the plain text of §355(f ). The Board’s decision to grant or deny reopening is ultimately discretionary, however, and therefore subject to reversal only for abuse of discretion.
Justice Clarence Thomas authored a dissent, which was joined in dissent by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett. While Justice Thomas acknowledged that the majority “may well correctly interpret the judicial review provision located in the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA),” he argued that the case concerns the judicial review provision located in the Railroad Retirement Act (RRA). According to Justice Thomas, the key issue is what may be reviewed, which is addressed in the RRA.
“Only Board decisions ‘determining the rights or liabilities of any person’ under the RRA are subject to judicial review,” Justice Thomas wrote. “Because the Board’s decision below did not determine any right or liability, the RRA does not provide for judicial review.”
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