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Roberts v. Sea-Land Services

March 20, 2012

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 Court Below: 625 F. 3d 1204

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 2011

Argued January 11, 2012

The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) creates a comprehensive scheme to pay compensation for an eligible employee's disability or death resulting from injury occurring upon the navigable waters of the United States. Benefits for most types of disabilities are capped at twice the national average weekly wage for the fiscal year in which an injured employee is "newly awarded compensation." 33 U. S. C. §906(c). The LHWCA requires employers to pay benefits voluntarily, without formal administrative proceedings. Typically, employers pay benefits without contesting liability, so no compensation orders are issued. However, if an employer controverts liability, or an employee contests his employer's actions with respect to his benefits, the dispute proceeds to the Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP) to be resolved, if possible, through informal procedures. An informal disposition may result in a compensation order. If not resolved informally, the dispute is referred to an administrative law judge (ALJ), who conducts a hearing and issues a compensation order. In fiscal year 2002, petitioner Roberts was injured at an Alaska marine terminal while working for respondent Sea-Land Services, Inc. Sea-Land (except for six weeks in 2003) voluntarily paid Roberts benefits until fiscal year 2005. Roberts then filed an LHWCA claim, and Sea-Land controverted. In fiscal year 2007, an ALJ awarded Roberts benefits at the fiscal year 2002 statutory maximum rate. Roberts sought reconsideration, contending that the award should have been set at the higher statutory maximum rate for fiscal year 2007, when, he argued, he was "newly awarded compensation" by order of the ALJ. The ALJ denied his motion, and the Department of Labor's Benefits Review Board affirmed, concluding that the pertinent maximum rate is determined by the date disability commences. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Held: 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. Pp. 5−18.

(a) Roberts contends that the statutory term "awarded compensation" means "awarded compensation in a formal order," while Sea- Land and the Director, OWCP, maintain that it means "statutorily entitled to compensation because of disability." Although §906 can be interpreted either way, only Sea-Land and the Director's interpretation makes §906 a working part of the statutory scheme. Under Roberts' interpretation, 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 LHWCA's design. Section 906(b)(1) caps compensation at twice the applicable national average weekly wage, as determined by the Secretary of Labor. Section 906(b)(3), in turn, directs the Secretary to determine that wage before each fiscal year begins, at which time it becomes the "applicable national average weekly wage" for the coming fiscal year. And §906(c), in its turn, provides that the Secretary's determination 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. Because all three provisions interlock, the cap functions as Congress intended only if §906(c) also applies globally, to all such cases. Roberts' interpretation would give §906(c) no application in the many cases in which no formal orders issue.

Using the national average weekly wage for the fiscal year in which an employee becomes disabled coheres with the LHWCA's administrative structure. An employer must be able to calculate the cap in order to pay benefits within 14 days of notice of an employee's disability, see §914(b), and in order to certify to the Department of Labor whether the maximum rate is being paid. Similarly, an OWCP claims examiner must verify the compensation rate in light of the applicable cap. It is difficult to see how an employer or claims examiner can use a national average weekly wage other than the one in effect at the time an employee becomes disabled. 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."

§902(10). It also avoids disparate treatment of similarly situated employees; Roberts' reading would permit two employees who earn the same salary and suffer the same injury on the same day to receive different maximum compensation rates based on the happenstance of their obtaining orders in different fiscal years. Finally, applying 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 wage rises each year with inflation would be unduly significant. Roberts' rule would reward employees who receive voluntary payments with windfalls for initiating unnecessary administrative proceedings to secure a higher rate, while simultaneously punishing employers who have complied fully with their statutory obligations to make voluntary payments. Pp. 5−13.

(b) Roberts' counterarguments are unconvincing. First, although the LHWCA sometimes uses "award" to mean "award in a formal order," the presumption that identical words used in different parts of the same Act are intended to have the same meaning, readily yields whenever, as here, the variation in the word's use in the LHWCA reasonably warrants the conclusion that it was employed in different parts of the Act with different intent. See General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline, 540 U. S. 581, 595.

Second, Roberts argues that, because this Court has refused to read the statutory phrase "person entitled to compensation" in §933(g) to mean "person awarded compensation," Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Co., The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Sotomayor

566 U. S. ____ (2012)

The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA or Act), ch. 509, 44 Stat. 1424, as amended, 33 U. S. C. §901 et seq., caps benefits for most types of disability at twice the national average weekly wage for the fiscal year in which an injured employee is "newly award ed compensation." §906(c). We hold that an employee is "newly awarded compensation" when he first becomes disabled and thereby becomes statutorily entitled to bene fits, no matter whether, or when, a compensation order issues on his behalf.

I.

A.

The LHWCA "is a comprehensive scheme to provide compensation 'in respect of disability or death of an em ployee . . . if the disability or death results from an injury 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 compen sation 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.*fn1 Disability benefits "shall not exceed" twice "the applicable national average weekly wage." §906(b)(1). The national average weekly wage--"the national average weekly earn ings 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 week ly wage is the figure for the fiscal year in which a benefi ciary is "newly awarded compensation," and the cap re mains constant as long as benefits continue. §906(c).*fn2

Consistent with the central bargain of workers' compen sation regimes--limited liability for employers; certain, prompt recovery for employees--the LHWCA requires that employers pay benefits voluntarily, without formal admin istrative 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 controvert ed." §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 compensation 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, 4, 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).*fn3

B.

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 pay ments, 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, conclud ing 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 [ยง906(c)] when he first becomes entitled to compensation." Roberts v. Director, OWCP, 625 F. 3d 1204, 1208 (2010) (per ...


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