Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc. v. Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs
Annotate this Case
519 U.S. 248 (1997)
OCTOBER TERM, 1996
INGALLS SHIPBUILDING, INC., ET AL. v. DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION PROGRAMS, DEPARTMENT
OF LABOR, ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
No.95-1081. Argued November 12, 1996-Decided February 18, 1997
While working for petitioner Ingalls as a shipfitter, Jefferson Yates was exposed to asbestos. After he was diagnosed as suffering from asbestosis and related conditions, he filed a claim for disability benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA or Act). Ingalls admitted compensability and eventually settled with Mr. Yates, who, in the meantime, had sued the manufacturers and suppliers of the asbestos products that were allegedly present in his workplace when he contracted asbestosis. Before his death, he settled with some of these defendants, each of whom required releases from respondent Yates, Mr. Yates' wife, even though she was not a party to the litigation. None of these pre death settlements was approved by Ingalls. After Mr. Yates' death, Mrs. Yates filed a claim for death benefits under the Act. Ingalls contested the claim under Act § 33(g)(1), which states: "If the person entitled to compensation ... enters into a settlement with a third person ... for an amount less than the compensation to which the person ... would be entitled under this [Act], the employer shall be liable for compensation ... only if written approval of the settlement is obtained from the employer ... before the settlement is executed." The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled for Mrs. Yates, and the Benefits Review Board (Board) affirmed, holding that, at the time she executed the pre death settlements, she was not a "person entitled to compensation" under § 33(g)(1) because her husband still lived, and, therefore, her right to death benefits had not yet vested. The Fifth Circuit agreed and affirmed. The court also rejected Ingalls' argument that the Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP), lacked standing to participate as a respondent in the appeal of a Board decision.
1. Before an injured worker's death, the worker's spouse is not a "person entitled to compensation" for death benefits within § 33(g)'s
meaning, and does not forfeit the right to collect death benefits under the Act for failure to obtain the worker's employer's approval of settlements entered into before the worker's death. Section 33(g)(1)'s plain language reveals two salient points. First, the use of the present tense (i. e., "enters") indicates that the "person entitled to compensation" must be so entitled at the time of settlement. Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Co., 505 U. S. 469, 475. Second, the ordinary meaning of the word "entitle" indicates that the "person entitled to compensation" must at the very least be qualified to receive compensation. Id., at 477. Thus, the relevant inquiry in this case is whether Mrs. Yates satisfied the prerequisites for obtaining death benefits under the Act at the time she signed the releases contained in the predeath settlements. Taken together, § 9 of the Act, which governs the distribution of death benefits, and § 2, which contains relevant definitions, indicate that a surviving spouse qualifies for death benefits only if: (i) the survivor's deceased worker-spouse dies from a work-related injury; (ii) the survivor is married to the worker-spouse at the time of death; and (iii) the survivor is either living with the worker-spouse, dependent upon the worker-spouse, or living apart from the worker-spouse because of desertion or other justifiable cause at the time of death. It is impossible to ascertain whether these prerequisites have been met at any time prior to the death of the injured worker. The Court therefore rejects the argument that a person seeking death benefits under the Act can satisfy the prerequisites for those benefits at any earlier time--e. g., when the worker is initially injured or when the worker enters into a pre death settlement. Because Mrs. Yates' husband was alive at the time she signed the releases, she was not a "person entitled to compensation" at that time and was therefore not obligated to seek Ingalls' approval to preserve her entitlement to statutory death benefits. Ingalls' arguments to the contrary-that § 33(g)(1) effectively brings any person who "would be entitled" to compensation within its purview, and that strict adherence to the section's plain language is at odds with the Act's underlying policy of avoiding double recovery-are unpersuasive. Pp.255-262.
2. Although the Act itself does not speak to the issue, the right to appear as a respondent before the courts of appeals is conferred upon the Director, OWCP, by Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 15(a), which, in pertinent part, states: "Review of an order of an administrative ... board ... must be obtained by filing with the clerk of a court of appeals ... [the appropriate form] .... In each case, the agency must be named respondent." (Emphasis added.) The Court declines to adopt the narrower reading of Rule 15(a) set forth in Parker v. Director,
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