Divided Court Rules U.S. Railroad Retirement Board Decision Subject to Judicial Review

In Salinas v. United States Railroad Retirement Board, 592 U. S. ____ (2021), a broken U.S. Supreme Court held that a denial by the U.S. Enforcement Retirement Board to reopen a previous benefits determination will be subject to judicial scrutiny. The choice represents the initial 5-to-4 divide in a case argued throughout the Court’s 2020-21 period.
Legal Background
The Railroad Retirement Act of 1974 (RRA) builds a method of disability, retirement, and survivor benefits for railroad employees. The system is administered by the U. S. Railroad Retirement Board (Board).
Part 231g of the RRA offers:
Choices of the Board determining the obligations or rights of any person under this subchapter shall be subject to judicial scrutiny in the exact same fashion, subject to the exact limitations, and all provisions of law shall apply in the exact same manner like the decision were a decision of corresponding rights or liabilities under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act [45 U.S.C. 351 et seq.] except that the time in which proceedings for the review of a determination with respect to an annuity, supplemental annuity, or lump sum benefit might be commenced shall be one year after the decision is going to have been entered upon the records of the Board and communicated to the plaintiff.
The RUIA’s judicial review provision, 45 U.S.C. §355(f), provides:”Any claimant, or any railroad labor organization organized in compliance with the terms of the Railway Labor Act…, of which claimant is a member, or any base-year company of the claimant, or another party aggrieved by a last decision under subsection (c) of the section, may… get a review of any last decision of the Board.”
Facts of the Case
In 1992, petitioner Manfredo M. Salinas started looking for disability benefits under the RRA according to serious injuries he suffered during his 15-year livelihood using the Union Pacific Railroad. Salinas’ first three applications were denied, but he had been granted benefits after he filed his fourth application in 2013. After reconsideration has been denied, he filed an administrative appeal, arguing that his third application, filed in 2006, should be reopened since the Board hadn’t considered specific medical records. An intermediary of the Board denied the petition to reopen since it wasn’t made”[w]ithin four years” of the 2006 decision, and the Board affirmed.
Salinas sought review together with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fifth Circuit noted a longstanding divide among the Circuits on the matter.
Majority Decision
Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored the majority opinion, that was linked with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh.
In reaching its decision, most noted that to qualify for judicial scrutiny below 45 U.S.C. §355(f ), the Board’s refusal to reopen its denial of Salinas’ 2006 application should constitute”any last decision of the Board.” It went on to conclude that it does.
Since Justice Sotomayor clarified, the term”any last decision” is wide and reflects Congress’ intent it could be interpreted widely. Citing Smith v. Berryhill, 587 U. S. ___, ___ (2019), she included the term also”denotes some sort of terminal event,” like the”final stage of review.” Justice Sotomayor further highlighted that language from the Administrative Procedure Act was interpreted to refer to an agency actions which”the two (1) mark[s] the consummation of the agency’s decision making process and (2) is only one in which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.”
As stated by the majority, the Board’s refusal to reopen the previous denial of benefits fulfills those criteria. To begin with, the decision was the”terminal event” from the Board’s administrative review procedure. Since Justice Sotomayor noted, after attractive the intermediary’s denial of reopening to the Board, Salinas’ only recourse was to seek judicial scrutiny. Secondly, the characteristics of a reopening choice make it ” in which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.” By way of example, a reopening is described as”a conscious determination… to rethink an otherwise final decision for purposes of revising that choice.” It thus entails significant changes that influence benefits and obligations under the RRA. The Board reads §355(f )’s prior reference to”another party aggrieved by a last decision under subsection (c)” to mean that each licensed party could seek review of just”a last choice under” §355(c). Part 355(f ), but utilizes the wide term”any last decision” without tying it into the earlier reference to §355(c). As stated by the majority, this is a”noteworthy omission,” since Congress used such limiting language elsewhere in Section 355.
The majority next determined that any ambiguity in the meaning of”any last decision” must be solved in Salinas’ prefer under the”strong presumption favoring judicial review of administrative actions.” Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, 575 U.S. 480 (2015). While the Board contended that various cross-references in §355 establish that §355(f ) and §355(c) are coextensive. The majority pointed out that there are several signs that §355(f ) is wider than §355(c). Accordingly, it concluded that the Board didn’t meet the”significant burden” of showing that the statute’s”speech or structure” forecloses judicial review.
The majority rejected several other arguments raised by the Board. To begin with, it dismissed the Board’s effort to analogize §355(f ) into the judicial-review provision dealt in Califano v. Sanders, 430 U.S. 99 (1977), noting that the latter provision comprises an express limitation that §355(f ) does not, distinguishing Califano from this circumstance. Secondly, most rejected the Board’s argument that reopening does not be eligible for judicial review since it’s just a”refusal to generate a new decision” of obligations or rights, like the denial of reopening on Your Home Visiting Nurse Services, Inc. v. Shalala, 525 U.S. 449 (1999). In support, justice Sotomayor emphasized that the statute on Your House failed to implicate the presumption in favor of judicial review and was thinner than §231g, that only incorporates §355(f ) to the RRA. Ultimately, the majority held that the fact that the Board could decline to offer reopening did not indicate that, having chosen to supply it, the Board could steer clear of the plain text of §355(f ). The Board’s decision to deny or grant reopening is ultimately optional, yet, and therefore subject to reversal just for abuse of discretion.
Dissent
Justice Clarence Thomas penned a dissent, which was joined in dissent by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, also Amy Coney Barrett. While Justice Thomas confessed that most”might well correctly translate the judicial review provision located in the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA),” he contended the case concerns the judicial review provision located in the Railroad Retirement Act (RRA). As stated by Justice Thomas, the essential issue is that which could be assessed, which is addressed at the RRA.
“Only Board decisions’determining the rights or liabilities of any person’ under the RRA are subject to judicial scrutiny,” Justice Thomas wrote. “Since the Board’s decision below did not decide any right or liability, the RRA does not provide for judicial scrutiny.”