February 03, 2021

Supreme Court Decides Salinas v. Railroad Retirement Board

On February 3, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Salinas v. United States Railroad Retirement Board, No. 19–199, holding that a refusal by the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board to reopen a prior benefits determination is subject to judicial review.

The Railroad Retirement Act of 1974 (RRA) provides long-term retirement and disability benefits to railroad employees. If an individual’s application for RRA benefits is denied, the statute lays out a series of escalating review mechanisms that the disappointed applicant may invoke: reconsideration from the Board’s Reconsideration Section, an appeal to the Board’s Bureau of Hearings and Appeals, and, finally, an appeal to the Board itself.

Manfredo Salinas worked for the Union Pacific Railroad for fifteen years. After being injured twice on the job, Salinas applied for disability benefits under the RRA. His first three applications were denied, but his fourth application was granted. Nevertheless, Salinas challenged the “amount and start date of his benefits.” On appeal, Salinas also argued that one of his prior applications—specifically, the one he had filed in 2006—should be reopened. When the Bureau and the Board denied Salinas’s request to reopen his 2006 application, Salinas filed a timely petition for review with the Fifth Circuit, but the Fifth Circuit dismissed Salinas’s petition for lack of jurisdiction on the grounds that “federal courts cannot review the Board’s refusal to reopen a prior benefits determination.”

The Supreme Court reversed in a 5-4 decision. The Court first explained that the RRA “makes judicial review under the RRA available to the same extent that review is available under the [Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA)].” 45 U.S.C. § 231g. And the RUIA, in turn, allows any person “aggrieved by a final decision under subsection (c) of this section” to “obtain a review of any final decision of the Board.” 45 U.S.C. § 355(f).

Here, the Court concluded that the Board’s refusal to reopen Salinas’s 2006 application was a “final decision of the Board” for two reasons: First, this decision “was the ‘terminal event’ in the Board’s administrative review process.” When the Board denied Salinas’s appeal, that was the end of the administrative road for Salinas. His “only recourse thereafter was to seek judicial review.” Second, the Board’s denial of Salinas’s appeal substantively affected Salinas’s benefits and the Board’s obligations under the RRA.

The Court also rejected several arguments advanced by the Board: To start with, the Court reasoned that even if a denial of reopening is not a determination granting or denying benefits, and thus not a decision “under subsection (c),” the plain text of § 355(f) “authorizes judicial review of ‘any’ final decision,” not just final decisions under subsection (c). Moreover, the Court concluded that, even if there were any ambiguity in the meaning of the phrase “any final decision,” that doubt must be resolved in Salinas’s favor, given the “strong presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action.”

The Court also rejected the Board’s attempt to analogize the RRA to the statutes at issue in two prior cases. The Court first explained that its prior decision in Califano v. Sanders is distinguishable because of a “key textual difference” between the Social Security Act provision at issue in Califano and the equivalent provision in RRA — namely, the inclusion in the Social Security Act of a requirement for a pre-decisional hearing, which the RRA does not require. Similarly, Your Home Visiting Nurse Services, Inc. v. Shalala is distinguishable because the statute in Your Home “did not implicate the presumption in favor of judicial review,” and the statute at issue in that case is narrower than § 231g.

Finally, “the fact that the Board could decline to offer [the opportunity to seek] reopening does not mean that, having chosen to provide [that opportunity], the Board may avoid the plain text of §355(f )” by insulating from judicial review its decision not to grant reopening in a particular case.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Kavanaugh. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Alito, Gorsuch, and Barrett.

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