Roberts v. Sea-Land Services, Inc.
Annotate this Case
566 US ___ (2012)
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Dana Roberts, PETITIONER v. Sea-Land Services, Inc., et al.
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit
[March 20, 2012]
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA or Act), ch. 509, 44Stat. 1424, as amended, 33 U. S. C. §901 et seq., caps benefits for most types of dis- ability at twice the national average weekly wage for the fiscal year in which an injured employee is “newly awarded compensation.” §906(c). We hold that an employee is “newly awarded compensation” when he first becomes disabled and thereby becomes statutorily entitled to benefits, no matter whether, or when, a compensation order issues on his behalf.
The LHWCA “is a comprehensive scheme to provide compensation ‘in respect of disability or death of an employee . . . if the disability or death results from an in- jury occurring upon the navigable waters of the United States.’ ” Metropolitan Stevedore Co. v. Rambo, 515 U. S. 291, 294 (1995) (quoting §903(a)). An employee’s compensation depends on the severity of his disability and his preinjury pay. A totally disabled employee, for example, is entitled to two-thirds of his preinjury average weekly wage as long as he remains disabled. §§908(a)–(b), 910.
Section 906, however, sets a cap on compensation. [ 1 ] Disability benefits “shall not exceed” twice “the applicable national average weekly wage.” §906(b)(1). The national average weekly wage—“the national average weekly earnings of production or nonsupervisory workers on private nonagricultural payrolls,” §902(19)—is recalculated by the Secretary of Labor each fiscal year. §906(b)(3). For most types of disability, the “applicable” national average weekly wage is the figure for the fiscal year in which a beneficiary is “newly awarded compensation,” and the cap remains constant as long as benefits continue. §906(c). [ 2 ]
Consistent with the central bargain of workers’ compensation regimes—limited liability for employers; certain, prompt recovery for employees—the LHWCA requires that employers pay benefits voluntarily, without formal administrative proceedings. Once an employee provides notice of a disabling injury, his employer must pay compensation “periodically, promptly, and directly . . . without an award, except where liability to pay compensation is controverted.” §914(a). In general, employers pay benefits without contesting liability. See Pallas Shipping Agency, Ltd. v. Duris, 461 U. S. 529, 532 (1983) . In the mine run of cases, therefore, no compensation orders issue.
If an employer controverts, or if an employee contests his employer’s actions with respect to his benefits, the dispute advances to the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP). See 20 CFR §§702.251–702.262 (2011). The OWCP district directors “are empowered to amicably and promptly resolve such problems by informal procedures.” §702.301. A district director’s informal disposition may result in a compen- sation order. §702.315(a). In practice, however, “many pending claims are amicably settled through voluntary payments without the necessity of a formal order.” Intercounty Constr. Corp. v. Walter, 422 U. S. 1 , n. 4 (1975). If informal resolution fails, the district director refers the dispute to an administrative law judge (ALJ). See 20 CFR §§702.316, 702.331–702.351. An ALJ’s decision after a hearing culminates in the entry of a compensation order. 33 U. S. C. §§919(c)–(e). [ 3 ]
In fiscal year 2002, petitioner Dana Roberts slipped and fell on a patch of ice while employed at respondent Sea-Land Services’ marine terminal in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Roberts injured his neck and shoulder and did not return to work. On receiving notice of his disability, Sea-Land (except for a six-week period in 2003) voluntarily paid Roberts benefits absent a compensation order until fiscal year 2005. When Sea-Land discontinued voluntary payments, Roberts filed an LHWCA claim, and Sea-Land controverted. In fiscal year 2007, after a hearing, an ALJ awarded Roberts benefits at the statutory maximum rate of $966.08 per week. This was twice the national average weekly wage for fiscal year 2002, the fiscal year when Roberts became disabled.
Roberts moved for reconsideration, arguing that the “ap- plicable” national average weekly wage was the figure for fiscal year 2007, the fiscal year when he was “newly awarded compensation” by the ALJ’s order. The latter figure would have entitled Roberts to $1,114.44 per week. The ALJ denied reconsideration, and the Department of Labor’s Benefits Review Board (or BRB) affirmed, concluding that “the pertinent maximum rate is determined by the date the disability commences.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 20. The Ninth Circuit affirmed in relevant part, holding that an employee “is ‘newly awarded compensation’ within the meaning of [§906(c)] when he first becomes entitled to compensation.” Roberts v. Director, OWCP, 625 F. 3d 1204, 1208 (2010) (per curiam). We granted certiorari, 564 U. S. ___ (2011), to resolve a conflict among the Circuits with respect to the time when a beneficiary is “newly awarded compensation,” and now affirm. [ 4 ]
Roberts contends that “awarded compensation” means “awarded compensation in a formal order.” Sea-Land, supported by the Director, OWCP, responds that “awarded compensation” means “statutorily entitled to compensation because of disability.” The text of §906(c), standing alone, admits of either interpretation. But “our task is to fit, if possible, all parts into an harmonious whole.” FTC v. Mandel Brothers, Inc., 359 U. S. 385, 389 (1959) . Only the interpretation advanced by Sea-Land and the Director makes §906 a working part of the statutory scheme; supplies an administrable rule that results in equal treatment of similarly situated beneficiaries; and avoids gamesmanship in the claims process. In light of these contextual and structural considerations, we hold that an employee is “newly awarded compensation” when he first becomes disabled and thereby becomes statutorily entitled to benefits under the Act, no matter whether, or when, a compensation order issues on his behalf.
We first consider “whether the language at issue has a plain and unambiguous meaning with regard to the par- ticular dispute in the case.” Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U. S. 337, 340 (1997) . The LHWCA does not define “awarded,” but in construing the Act, as with any statute, “ ‘we look first to its language, giving the words used their ordinary meaning.’ ” Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc. v. Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, 519 U. S. 248, 255 (1997) (quoting Moskal v. United States, 498 U. S. 103, 108 (1990) ). At first blush, Roberts’ position is appealing. In ordinary usage, “award” most often means “give by judicial decree” or “assign after careful judgment.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 152 (2002); see also, e.g., Black’s Law Dictionary 157 (9th ed. 2009) (“grant by formal process or by judicial decree”).
But “award” can also mean “grant,” or “confer or bestow upon.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, at 152; see also ibid. (1971 ed.) (same). The LHWCA “grants” benefits to disabled employees, and so can be said to “award” compensation by force of its entitlement-creating provisions. Indeed, this Court has often said that statutes “award” entitlements. See, e.g., Astrue v. Ratliff, 560 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 4) (referring to “statutes that award attorney’s fees to a prevailing party”); Barber v. Thomas, 560 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (appendix to majority opinion) (slip op., at 19) (statute “awards” good-time credits to federal prisoners); New Energy Co. of Ind. v. Limbach, 486 U. S. 269, 271 (1988) (Ohio statute “awards a tax credit”); Pacific Employers Ins. Co. v. Industrial Accident Comm’n, 306 U. S. 493, 500 (1939) (California workers’ compensation statute “award[s] compensation for injuries to an employee”); see also, e.g., Connecticut v. Doehr, 501 U. S. 1, 28 (1991) (Rehnquist, C. J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) (“Materialman’s and mechanic’s lien statutes award an interest in real property to workers”). Similarly, this Court has described an employee’s survivors as “having been ‘newly awarded’ death benefits” by virtue of the employee’s death, without any reference to a formal order. Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs v. Rasmussen, 440 U. S. 29 , n. 16 (1979) (quoting §906(c)’s predecessor provision, 33 U. S. C. §906(d) (1976 ed.)).
In short, the text of §906(c), in isolation, is indeterminate.
Statutory language, however, “cannot be construed in a vacuum. It is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.” Davis v. Michigan Dept. of Treasury, 489 U. S. 803, 809 (1989) . In the context of the LHWCA’s comprehensive, reticulated regime for worker benefits—in which §906 plays a pivotal role—“awarded compensation” is much more sensibly interpreted to mean “statutorily entitled to compensation because of disability.” [ 5 ]
Section 906 governs compensation in all LHWCA cases. As explained above, see supra, at 3, the LHWCA requires employers to pay benefits voluntarily, and in the vast majority of cases, that is just what occurs. Under Roberts’ interpretation of §906(c), no employee receiving voluntary payments has been “awarded compensation,” so none is subject to an identifiable maximum rate of compensation. That result is incompatible with the Act’s design. Sec- tion 906(b)(1) caps “[c]ompensation for disability or death (other than compensation for death required . . . to be paid in a lump sum)” at twice “the applicable national average weekly wage, as determined by the Secretary under paragraph (3).” Section 906(b)(3), in turn, directs the Secretary to “determine” the national average weekly wage before each fiscal year begins on October 1 and provides that “[s]uch determination shall be the applicable national average weekly wage” for the coming fiscal year. And §906(c), in its turn, provides that “[d]eterminations under subsection (b)(3) . . . with respect to” a fiscal year “shall apply to . . . those newly awarded compensation during such” fiscal year. Through a series of cross-references, the three provisions work together to cap disability benefits.
By its terms, and subject to one express exception, §906(b)(1) specifies that the cap applies globally, to all disability claims. But all three provisions interlock, so the cap functions as Congress intended only if §906(c) also applies globally, to all such cases. See, e.g., FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 529 U. S. 120, 133 (2000) (“A court must . . . interpret the statute ‘as a symmetrical and coherent regulatory scheme’ ” (quoting Gustafson v. Alloyd Co., 513 U. S. 561, 569 (1995) )). If Roberts’ interpretation were correct, §906(c) would have no application at all in the many cases in which no formal orders issue, because employers make voluntary payments or the parties reach informal settlements. We will not construe §906(c) in a manner that renders it “entirely superfluous in all but the most unusual circumstances.” TRW Inc. v. Andrews, 534 U. S. 19, 29 (2001) .
Recognizing this deficiency in his reading of §906(c), Roberts proposes that orders issue in every case, so that employers can lock in the caps in effect at the time their employees become disabled. This is a solution in search of a problem. Under settled LHWCA practice, orders are rare. Roberts’ interpretation would set needless administrative machinery in motion and would disrupt the congressionally preferred system of voluntary compensation and informal dispute resolution. The incongruity of Roberts’ proposal is highlighted by his inability to identify a vehicle for the entry of an order in an uncontested case. Section 919(c), on which Roberts relies, applies only if an employee has filed a claim. Likewise, 20 CFR §702.315(a) applies only in the case of a claim or an employer’s no- tice of controversion. See §702.301. We doubt that an em- ployee will file a claim for the sole purpose of assisting his employer in securing a lower cap. And we will not read §906(c) to compel an employer to file a baseless notice of controversion. Cf. 33 U. S. C. §§928(a), (d) (providing for assessment of attorney’s fees and costs against employers who controvert unsuccessfully). Roberts suggests that employers could threaten to terminate benefits in order to induce their employees to file claims, and thus initiate the administrative process. Construing any workers’ compensation regime to encourage gratuitous confrontation between employers and employees strikes us as unsound.
Using the national average weekly wage for the fiscal year in which an employee becomes disabled coheres with the LHWCA’s administrative structure. Section 914(b) requires an employer to pay benefits within 14 days of notice of an employee’s disability. To do so, an employer must be able to calculate the cap. An employer must also notify the Department of Labor of voluntary payments by filing a form that indicates, inter alia, whether the “maximum rate is being paid.” Dept. of Labor, Form LS–206, Payment of Compensation Without Award (2011), online at http://www.dol.gov/owcp/dlhwc/ls-206.pdf. On receipt of this form, an OWCP claims examiner must verify the rate of compensation in light of the applicable cap. See Dept. of Labor, Longshore (DLHWC) Procedure Manual §2–201(3)(b)(3) (hereinafter Longshore Procedure Man- ual), online at http://www.dol.gov/owcp/dlhwc/lspm/lspm2-201.htm. It is difficult to see how an employer can apply or certify a national average weekly wage other than the one in effect at the time an employee becomes disabled. An employer is powerless to predict when an employee might file a claim, when a compensation order might issue, or what the national average weekly wage will be at that later time. Likewise for a claims examiner. [ 6 ]
Moreover, applying the national average weekly wage for the fiscal year in which an employee becomes disabled advances the LHWCA’s purpose to compensate disability, defined as “incapacity because of injury to earn the wages which the employee was receiving at the time of injury.” 33 U. S. C. §902(10) (emphasis added). Just as the LHWCA takes “the average weekly wage of the injured employee at the time of the injury” as the “basis upon which to compute compensation,” §910, it is logical to apply the national average weekly wage for the same point in time. Administrative practice has long treated the time of injury as the relevant date. See, e.g., Dept. of Labor, Pamphlet LS–560, Workers’ Compensation Under the Longshoremen’s Act (rev. Dec. 2003) (“Compensation payable under the Act may not exceed 200% of the national average weekly wage, applicable at the time of injury”), online at http://www.dol.gov/owcp/dlhwc/LS-560pam.htm; Dept. of Labor, Workers’ Compensation Under the Longshoremen’s Act, Pamphlet LS–560 (rev. Nov. 1979) (same); see also, e.g., Dept. of Labor, LHWCA Bulletin No. 11–01, p. 2 (2010) (national average weekly wage for particular fiscal year applies to “disability incurred during” that fiscal year). [ 7 ]
Applying the national average weekly wage at the time of onset of disability avoids disparate treatment of simi- larly situated employees. Under Roberts’ reading, two em- ployees who earn the same salary and suffer the same injury on the same day could be entitled to different rates of compensation based on the happenstance of their obtaining orders in different fiscal years. We can imagine no reason why Congress would have intended, by choosing the words “newly awarded compensation,” to differentiate between employees based on such an arbitrary criterion.
Finally, using the national average weekly wage for the fiscal year in which disability commences discourages gamesmanship in the claims process. If the fiscal year in which an order issues were to determine the cap, the fact that the national average weekly wage typically rises every year with inflation, see n. 2, supra, would become unduly significant. Every employee affected by the cap would seek the entry of a compensation order in a later fiscal year. Even an employee who has been receiving compensation at the proper rate for years would be well advised to file a claim for greater benefits in order to obtain an order at a later time. Likewise, an employee might delay the adjudicatory process to defer the entry of an order. And even in an adjudicated case where an employer is found to have paid benefits at the proper rate, an ALJ would adopt the later fiscal year’s national average weekly wage, making the increased cap retroactively applicable to all of the employer’s payments. Roberts candidly acknowledges that his position gives rise to such perverse incentives. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 58–59. We decline to adopt a rule that would reward employees with windfalls for initiating unnecessary administrative proceedings, while simultaneously punishing employers who have complied fully with their statutory obligations.
We find Roberts’ counterarguments unconvincing.
First, Roberts observes that some provisions of the LHWCA clearly use “award” to mean “award in a formal order,” and contends that the same must be true of “awarded compensation” in §906(c). We agree that the Act sometimes uses “award” as Roberts urges. Section 914(a), for example, refers to the payment of compensation “to the person entitled thereto, without an award,” foreclosing the equation of “entitlement” and “award” that we adopt with respect to §906(c) today. [ 8 ] But the presumption that “identical words used in different parts of the same act are intended to have the same meaning . . . readily yields whenever there is such variation in the connection in which the words are used as reasonably to warrant the conclusion that they were employed in different parts of the act with different intent.” General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline, 540 U. S. 581, 595 (2004) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also, e.g., United States v. Cleveland Indians Baseball Co., 532 U. S. 200, 213 (2001) . Here, we find the presumption overcome because several provisions of the Act would make no sense if “award” were read as Roberts proposes. Those provisions confirm today’s holding because they too, in context, use “award” to denote a statutory entitlement to compensation because of disability.
For example, §908(c)(20) provides that “[p]roper and equitable compensation not to exceed $7,500 shall be awarded for serious disfigurement.” Roberts argues that §908(c)(20) “necessarily contemplates administrative action to fix the amount of the liability and direct its payment.” Reply Brief for Petitioner 11. In Roberts’ view, no disfigured employee may receive benefits without in- voking the administrative claims process. That argu- ment, however, runs counter to §908’s preface, which directs that “[c]ompensation for disability shall be paid to the employee,” and to §914(a), which requires the payment of compensation “without an award.” It is also belied by employers’ practice of paying §908(c)(20) benefits voluntarily. See, e.g., Williams-McDowell v. Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., No. 99–0627 etc., 2000 WL 35928576, *1 (BRB, Mar. 15, 2000) (per curiam); Evans v. Bergeron Barges, Inc., No. 98–1641, 1999 WL 35135283, *1 (BRB, Sept. 3, 1999) (per curiam). In light of the LHWCA’s interest in prompt payment and settled practice, “awarded” in §908(c)(20) can only be better read, as in §906(c), to refer to a disfigured employee’s entitlement to benefits.
Likewise, §908(d)(1) provides that if an employee who is receiving compensation for a scheduled disability [ 9 ] dies before receiving the full amount of compensation to which the schedule entitles him, “the total amount of the award unpaid at the time of death shall be payable to or for the benefit of his survivors.” See also §908(d)(2). Roberts’ interpretation of “award” would introduce an odd gap: Only survivors of those employees who were receiving schedule benefits pursuant to orders—not survivors of employees who were receiving voluntary payments—would be entitled to the unpaid balances due their decedents. There is no reason why Congress would have chosen to distinguish between survivors in this manner. And the Benefits Review Board has quite sensibly interpreted §908(d) to mean that “an employee has a vested interest in benefits which accrue during his lifetime, and, after he dies, his estate is entitled to those benefits, regardless of when an award is made.” Wood v. Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc., 28 BRBS 27, 36 (1994) (per curiam). [ 10 ]
Finally, §933(b) provides: “For the purpose of this subsection, the term ‘award’ with respect to a compensation order means a formal order issued by the deputy commissioner, an administrative law judge, or Board.” Unless award may mean something other than “award in a compensation order,” this specific definition would be unnecessary. Roberts contends that this provision, enacted in 1984, “was indeed ‘unnecessary’ ” in light of Pallas Shipping. Brief for Petitioner 29; see 461 U. S., at 534 (“The term ‘compensation order’ in the LHWCA refers specifi- cally to an administrative award of compensation following proceedings with respect to the claim”). Roberts’ argument offends the canon against superfluity and neglects that §933(b) defines the term “award,” whereas Pallas Shipping defines the term “compensation order.” Moreover, Congress’ definition of “award,” which tracks Roberts’ preferred interpretation, was carefully limited to §933(b). Had Congress intended to adopt a universal definition of “award,” it could have done so in §902, the LHWCA’s glossary. Read in light of the “duty to give effect, if possible, to every clause and word of a statute,” Duncan v. Walker, 533 U. S. 167, 174 (2001) (internal quotation marks omitted), §933(b) debunks Roberts’ argument that the Act always uses “award” to mean “award in a formal order” and confirms that “award” has other meanings.
Next, Roberts notes that this Court has refused to read the statutory phrase “person entitled to compensation” in §933(g) to mean “person awarded compensation.” See Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Co., 505 U. S. 469, 477 (1992) (“[A] person entitled to compensation need not be receiving compensation or have had an adjudication in his favor”). In Roberts’ view, the converse must also be true: “awarded compensation” in §906(c) cannot mean “entitled to compensation.” But Cowart’s reasoning does not work in reverse. Cowart did not construe §906(c) or the term “award,” but relied on the uniform meaning of the phrase “person entitled to compensation” in the LHWCA. See id., at 478–479. As just explained, the LHWCA contains no uniform meaning of the term “award.” Moreover, Cowart did not hold that the groups of “employees entitled to compensation” and “employees awarded compensation” were mutually exclusive. The former group includes the latter: The entry of a compensation order is a sufficient but not necessary condition for membership in the former. See id., at 477.
Finally, Roberts contends that his interpretation furthers the LHWCA’s purpose of providing employees with prompt compensation by encouraging employers to avoid delay and expedite administrative proceedings. But Roberts’ remedy would also punish employers who voluntarily pay benefits at the proper rate from the time of their employees’ injuries. These employers would owe benefits under the higher cap applicable in any future fiscal year when their employees chose to file claims. And Roberts’ remedy would offer no relief at all to the many beneficiaries entitled to less than the statutory maximum rate.
The more measured deterrent to employer tardiness is interest that “accrues from the date a benefit came due, rather than from the date of the ALJ’s award.” Matulic v. Director, OWCP, 154 F. 3d 1052, 1059 (CA9 1998). The Director has long taken the position that “interest is a necessary and inherent component of ‘compensation’ because it ensures that the delay in payment of compensation does not diminish the amount of compensation to which the employee is entitled.” Sproull v. Director, OWCP, 86 F. 3d 895, 900 (CA9 1996); see also, e.g., Strachan Shipping Co. v. Wedemeyer, 452 F. 2d 1225, 1229 (CA5 1971). Moreover, “[t]imely controversion does not relieve the responsible party from paying interest on unpaid compensation.” Longshore Procedure Manual §8-201, online at http://www.dol.gov/owcp/dlhwc/lspm/lspm8-201.htm. Indeed, the ALJ awarded Roberts interest “on each unpaid installment of compensation from the date the compensation became due.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 108, Order ¶5. [ 11 ]
* * *
We hold that an employee is “newly awarded compensation” when he first becomes disabled and thereby becomes statutorily entitled to benefits, no matter whether, or when, a compensation order issues on his behalf. [ 12 ] The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is affirmed.
It is so ordered.