Barnhart v. Sigmon Coal Co.,
Annotate this Case
534 U.S. 438 (2002)
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OCTOBER TERM, 2001
BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY v. SIGMON COAL CO., INC., ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
No. 00-1307. Argued November 7, 200l-Decided February 19,2002
The Coal Industry Retiree Health Benefit Act of 1992 (Coal Act or Act) restructured the system for providing private health care benefits to coal industry retirees. The Act merged the 1950 and 1974 Benefit Plans-which were created pursuant to collective-bargaining agreements between the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and coal operators-into a new multiemployer plan called the UMWA Combined Benefit Fund (Combined Fund). See 26 U. S. C. § 9702(a). That fund is financed by annual premiums assessed against "signatory coal operators," i. e., those who signed any agreement requiring contributions to the 1950 or 1974 Benefit Plans. Where the signatory is no longer in business, the Act assigns liability for beneficiaries to a defined group of "related persons." See §§ 9706(a), 9701(c)(2), (7). The Act charges the Commissioner of Social Security with assigning each eligible beneficiary to a signatory operator or its related persons, § 9706(a); identifies specific categories of signatory operators (and their related persons) and requires the Commissioner to assign beneficiaries among these categories in a particular order, ibid.; and ensures that if a beneficiary remains unassigned because no existing company falls within the categories, benefits will be financed by the Combined Fund, see §§ 9704(a), (d), 9705(b). Shortly after respondent Jericol Mining, Inc. (Jericol), was formed in 1973 as Irdell Mining, Inc., Irdell and another company purchased the coal mining operating assets of Shackleford Coal Co., which was a signatory to a coal wage agreement while it was in business. Among other things, they assumed responsibility for Shackleford's collective-bargaining agreement with the UMWA. There was no common ownership between Irdell and Shackleford. Irdell subsequently changed its name, operating as the Shackleford Coal Co. until 1977, when it again changed its name to Jericol. Between 1993 and 1997, the Commissioner assigned premium responsibility for 86 retired miners to Jericol under § 9706(a)(3), determining that as a "successor" or "successor in interest" to the original Shackleford, Jericol qualified as a "related person" to Shackleford. All of these retirees had worked for Shackleford, but none of them had actually worked for Jericol. Jericol and respondent Sigmon Coal Company, Inc., a person related to Jericol under
§ 9701(c)(2), filed suit against the Commissioner. The District Court granted them summary judgment, concluding that the Act's classification regime does not provide for the liability of successors of defunct signatory operators. In affirming, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the Act was clear and unambiguous and that the court was bound to read it exactly as it was written, and held, inter alia, that Jericol was not a "related person" to Shackleford and thus could not be held responsible for Shackleford's miners.
Held: The Coal Act does not permit the Commissioner to assign retired miners to the successors in interest of out-of-business signatory operators. pp. 450-462.
1. Because the Act is explicit as to who may be assigned liability for beneficiaries and neither the "related persons" provision nor any other provision states that successors in interest to these signatory operators may be assigned liability, the Act's plain language necessarily precludes the Commissioner from assigning the disputed miners to Jericol. Where, as here, the statutory language is unambiguous, the inquiry ceases. See, e. g., United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises, Inc., 489 U. S. 235, 240. Since the retirees at issue were Shackleford employees, the "signatory operator" that sold its assets to Jericol (then-Irdell) in 1973, the Commissioner can only assign the beneficiaries to Jericol if it is a "related person" to Shackleford under § 9706(a). Section 9701(c)(2) states that "[a] person shall be considered to be a related person to a signatory operator if that person is-" "(i) a member of the controlled group of corporations ... which includes [the] signatory operator"; "(ii) a trade or business ... under common control ... with such signatory operator"; or "(iii) any other person who [has] a partnership interest or joint venture with a signatory operator" with some exceptions. A related person also includes "a successor in interest of any person described in clause (i), (ii), or (iii)." There is no contention that Jericol was ever a member of a controlled group of corporations including Shackleford, that it was ever a business under common control with Shackleford, or that it ever had a partnership interest or engaged in a joint venture with Shackleford. Therefore, liability for these beneficiaries may attach to Jericol only if it is a successor in interest to an entity described in §§ 9701(c)(2)(A)(i)-(iii). Because Jericol is a successor in interest only to Shackleford, Jericol will be liable only if a signatory operator itself, here Shackleford, falls within one of these categories. None of the three categories, however, includes the signatory operator itself. Nor should such inclusion be inferred, since it is a general principle of statutory construction that when one statutory section includes particular language that is omitted in another section of the