Can annuity benefits claimants under the Railroad Retirement Act seek judicial review when the Railroad Retirement Board denies a claim to reopen a decision under Section 5(f) of the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act, or does such a determination fail to represent a final decision?
This case asks the Supreme Court to interpret the judicial review provision of the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act, and to determine whether the statute provides for broad review of agency decisions, such as decisions to reopen or deny a reopening of past outcomes through the “any final decision” language of Section 355(f). Manfredo Salinas argues that the Supreme Court should construe the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act’s provision broadly to permit judicial review of a United States Railroad Retirement Board decision not to backdate disability benefits. The United States Railroad Retirement Board counters that the statute grants the United States Railroad Retirement Board broad internal review and limits judicial review only to those decisions encompassed by the express language of the surrounding statutory framework. This case has important implications on the finality and reviewability of decisions that impact the duration and dollar amount of federally funded annuities.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether, under Section 5(f) of the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act and Section 8 of the Railroad Retirement Act, the Railroad Retirement Board’s denial of a request to reopen a prior benefits determination is a “final decision” subject to judicial review.
On February 28, 2006, Petitioner Manfredo M. Salinas (“Salinas”), a railroad worker, applied to Respondent United States Railroad Retirement Board (the “Board”) for a disability annuity under 45 U.S.C. § 231(a)(1). See Salinas v. U.S. R.R. Ret. Bd. at 1–2. The Board denied Salinas’s application on August 28, 2006. Id. at 2. On November 30, 2006, Salinas appealed the Board’s decision, but the Board denied the request. Id. The Board determined that Salinas failed to submit his reconsideration request in time; and further, Salinas did not demonstrate good cause for the delay. Id. Salinas did not make any further appeals to the Board, and the Board’s decision became final on February 9, 2007. Id.
Salinas filed a new application for a disability annuity with the Board on December 26, 2013. Id. The Board approved that annuity—concluding that Salinas’s age and condition rendered him unfit for work. Id. Salinas then appealed the start date and amount of the annuity benefits. Id. As part of the appeal, on February 15, 2015, Salinas asked the Board to reopen its decision to deny his February 2006 application. Id. The Board concluded that the 2006 application fell outside the timeframe—the statutorily provided four years—to reopen applications in light of “new or material evidence” or “administrative error under the Board’s regulations.” Id. Salinas then petitioned the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (“Fifth Circuit”) to review the Board’s decision. Id.
Salinas argues that the Fifth Circuit maintains jurisdiction to review the Board’s decision. Id. at 2–3. Salinas claimed that the Board’s initial decision to deny him benefits is both a final and reviewable decision under 45 U.S.C. § 355(f), the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act. Id. Previously in Roberts. v. R.R. Ret. Bd., the Fifth Circuit found that the court of appeals are split on this issue. Id. In that case, the Fifth Circuit held that it lacked jurisdiction to review the Board’s decision—following the majority view among the Courts of Appeals. Id. Salinas conceded that if the Fifth Circuit followed Roberts then his argument fails as a matter of law. Id. However, Salinas urged the Fifth Circuit to depart from its precedent, and follow a 2016 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the District Columbia Circuit, Stovic v. R.R. Ret. Bd., which held that the Circuit maintained jurisdiction to review the Board’s decisions. Id. The Fifth Circuit declined to do so. Id. The Fifth Circuit also stated that because Salinas failed to address both the annuity’s start date and amount, he could not appeal those issues. Id.
The Fifth Circuit denied Salinas’s petition to review the Board’s decision. Id. On August 15, 2019, Salinas petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States for a writ of certiorari, which the Court granted on January 10, 2020. Brief for Petitioner, Manfredo M. Salinas at 1.
WHAT IS THE NATURE OF SECTION 355?
Petitioner Salinas argues that Congress intended for finality to attach to the Board’s decisions and provided judicial review via Section 355(f) of the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (“RUIA”) as a “safety valve.” Brief for Petitioner, Manfredo M. Salinas at 25, 27. Salinas contends that under a plain text analysis of Section 355(f), “any final decision” directly translates to “all final decisions,” including decisions to deny reopening requests. Id. at 19–20. Salinas asserts that given more language specifically limiting judicial review elsewhere in the RUIA, Congress’s choice of language in 355(f) indicates that Congress intended Board decisions to be broadly reviewable. Id. Salinas maintains that Section 231g, the Railroad Retirement Act’s (“RRA”) equivalent to Section 355(f), is nearly identical in structure and wording to 355(f), and that the Supreme Court has already interpreted its language to have a broadly encompassing reach. Id. at 20–21. Salinas contends that a one-size-fits-all rule for actions reviewed by regulatory agencies is misguided, and that neither the Board nor the Court should draw comparisons between the Social Security Act’s (“SSA”) judicial review provisions and the review provisions under the RRA and RUIA. Id. at 40–41. Salinas asserts that the SSA and RUIA have crucial textual differences. Id. at 42.
Respondent Board argues that, under both the RRA and the RUIA, judicial review is not available for the Board’s decision to decline to reopen an application. Brief for Respondent, United States Railroad Retirement Board at 17. The Board asserts that only decisions made under Section 355(c) of the RUIA are subject to judicial review. Id. The Board contends Salinas falls outside Section 355(f)’s scope because Section 355(f) only refers to four kinds of parties that may seek judicial review: (1)“‘[a]ny claimant’”; (2) a qualifying “‘railway labor organization[s]’”; (3) a “‘base-year employer of the claimant’”; or (4) “‘any other party aggrieved by a final decision under subsection (c).’” Id. at 18. The Board argues that the word “other” means that all parties mentioned in Section 355(f) must be aggrieved by a final decision under Section 355(c). Id. The Board maintains that under Salinas’s reading of the statute, any listed party can challenge any of the Board’s final decisions even if it does not aggrieve them. Id. at 19. Finally, the Board contends that the design of the SSA and RUIA statutes are similar enough that it is safe to analogize between them to limit judicial review here. Id. at 36.
HOW DOES SECTION 355(c) AFFECT THE INTERPRETATION OF SECTION 355(f)?
Salinas argues that the best way to interpret Section 355(f)’s list of litigants entitled to judicial review is to not exclude litigants whose claims fall outside Section 355(c). Brief for Petitioner at 30–31. Salinas proposes that 355(f) should be read in accordance with the “last-antecedent rule,” which limits the final modifier to only the immediately preceding subject; this, Salinas argues, is in consonance with the general understanding of the other modifiers in Section 355. Id. at 32. Salinas further contends that if the Court interpreted Section 355(f) according to the Board’s favored reading, Section 355(f) would give both meaningless and overinclusive effect to Section 355(c). Id. at 33. Furthermore, Salinas asserts that certain claims under Section 355(g) would be unreviewable if the Court narrowly interpreted Section 355(f) as limited by Section 355(c), as Section 355(g) claims can only be reviewed through Section 355(f). Id. at 34–36. Finally, Salinas argues that limiting judicial review to the types of claims provided for solely under Sections 355(c) and (g) by constricting Section 355(f) would break with the Court’s statutory interpretation precedents. Id. at 36–37. Salinas expounds that the text of the statute, with its many modifiers and intentional complexity, clearly supports applying the last-antecedent rule. Petitioner’s Reply Brief at 15.
The Board contends that the requirement of being aggrieved does not just apply to the fourth-listed party in Section 355(f), but that there are other ways to interpret the last-antecedent rule to apply only to the phrase that “it immediately follows.” Brief for Respondent at 24. The Board argues that the structure and actual language of Section 355 are more important than that rule—here the word “other” in Section 355(f) means that the last item in the list has the same characteristics as the preceding items, which takes precedent over the last-antecedent rule. Id. at 24–26. The Board argues that the RRA’s Section 231g supports the Board’s claim that decisions about reopening applications cannot be reviewed by courts because Section 231g’s language—allowing courts to review decisions about “rights or liabilities”—matches Section 355(c)’s intended purpose; that language, according to the Board, does not allow for judicial review of all of the Board’s final decisions. Id. at 29. The Board claims that a decision not to reopen a case is not about “rights or liabilities,” but is a refusal to decide something new. Id.
IS JUDICIAL REVIEW OF THE BOARD’S DETERMINATIONS LIMITED?
Salinas argues that it interprets Section 355(f) to be self-limiting to claims under the Act. Petitioner’s Reply Brief at 2–3. Salinas contends that his preferred reading of Section 355(f) would not open the door to parties outside the scope of either the RRA or RUIA. Id. This, Salinas maintains, is because Article III of the United States Constitution only affords judicial review to aggrieved parties. Id. Further, Salinas proposes that the exhaustion and judicial review provisions scattered throughout Section 355’s subsections work together, allowing the Board to appreciably consider certain decisions for more complex or important types of claims while leaving ultimate review to the federal courts on all matters. Id. at 6–7. Salinas argues that the presumption of judicial review, in the absence of textual or contextual evidence showing otherwise, militates in favor of reviewing the Board’s denial to reopen. Brief for Petitioner at 24–25. Salinas further objects that the Board fails to meet its burden to rebut the presumption clearly and convincingly for judicial review on reopening claims. Id. at 41–42.
The Board argues that the structure of Section 355 makes clear that judicial review is limited to decisions made under Section 355(c). Brief for Respondent at 20. The Board posits that this means that certain categories of Board decisions will therefore have to undergo an internal review, as opposed to judicial review, as required by Sections 355(c), (f), and (g). Id. at 20–21. The Board asserts that Section 355’s complex structure preserves judicial review for the “most important” Board determinations, while permitting the Board's greater discretion over routine decisions to remove “any and all” determinations from the burdensome review process. Id. at 21. The Board contends that Section 355(c) works together with Section 355(f) because 355(f) requires an aggrieved party to follow the procedures in Section 355(c), and therefore they must be read together. Id. at 21–22. The Board maintains that since Congress gave the Board permission to decide whether to reopen a case, courts should not review those decisions. Id. at 34. Finally, the Board argues that judicial review only applies to the merits of the claim, not the Board’s decision as to whether it should be reopened. Id. at 41.
SEPARATION OF POWERS CONCERNS
Salinas avers that reading Section 355(f) narrowly implicates separation of powers concerns. Brief for Petitioner, Manfredo M. Salinas at 37–39. Salinas asserts that Congress would not have wanted to limit judicial review of agency decisions affecting vulnerable workers in one of the most hazardous industries. Id. at 28–29. Further, because Board decisions are unreviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act—and subject to only very minor influence and oversight by the President and his appointees—Salinas maintains that restricting judicial review under Section 355(f) permits the Board to act with impunity. Id. at 38–40. Salinas maintains that Congress would not have set up an independent agency without accountability to either the courts or the President. Id.
The Board counters that the Board’s decisions as to whether to reopen a case do not create concerns about separation of powers. Brief for Respondent, United States Railroad Retirement Board at 46. The Board contends that regardless of Salinas’s claims that the Board is “‘unchecked,’” there are no examples that show that the Board makes arbitrary decisions. Id. The Board also argues that the Board’s membership has no relationship to the availability of judicial review. Id.
CONGRESSIONAL INTENT AND WORKER VULNERABILITY
Salinas maintains that although the availability of the reopening mechanism is entirely discretionary under the statute, Congress intended for the Board’s actions, once offered, to be subject to a protracted process of revision and review. Brief for Petitioner at 19–20. Salinas asserts Congress intended to subject the Board’s decisions to judicial review in order to ensure accountability. See id. at 27. Salinas maintains that Congress knew that the Board would conduct a high level of business—thus subjecting the Board to a higher rate of agency error—which is why Congress promoted the Board to set up its own internal review process, but Congress did not intend for this accountability method to supplant judicial review. Id. at 44. Salinas also notes that the RRA and RUIA largely address benefits afforded to vulnerable individuals, and that Congress intended to make review broadly available to vitiate the likelihood of arbitrary or incorrect denials. Id. at 27–29. Salinas notes that very few of the beneficiaries ever have contested an agency decision, and that judicial review is the only mechanism to ensure fairness. Id. at 29.
The Board argues that Congress clearly intended to limit the availability of judicial review. Brief for Respondent at 39. The Board asserts that allowing claimants to ask a court to review the Board’s decision not to reopen a case years later would go against Congress’s intent. Id. The Board contends that Congress made a conscious decision to prevent extra litigation over the Board’s decisions about whether to reopen claims. Id. Furthermore, the Board argues that it makes sense to have these limitations on certain decisions, and that Congress made its intent clear and this deserves respect. Id. The Board also claims that Salinas’s reading of Section 355(f), which permits potential claimants to challenge any of the Board’s final decisions, falls outside the scope of the statute by subjecting any Board decision to litigation from a perilously large class of litigants. Id. at 19. The Board argues that because the Social Security Administration uses a similar review process—which Congress created at the same time as the Board—Congress must have intended the Board not to have all its decisions subject to judicial review. Id. at 20. Finally, the Board asserts that the internal review process, required by statute, is designed precisely to minimize the risk of error that would result in a denial of benefits. Id. at 40.
- Angela Mauroni, Supreme Court to Hear Private Health Industry Protections, Disability and Retirement, Governmental Exceptions to Automated Calls, Jurist (Jan. 13, 2020).
- Allison Bell, Railroad Disability Benefits Reaches Supreme Court, ThinkAdvisor (Oct. 16, 2020).