January 13, 2022

Supreme Court Decides Babcock v. Kijakazi

On January 13, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that civil-service pension payments received by dual-status military technicians are not payments based on “service as a member of a uniformed service” under 42 U.S.C. § 415(a)(7)(A)(III) and thus reduce the technicians’ social security benefits. Babcock v. Kijakazi, Acting Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 20-480.

Petitioner David Babcock worked both as a civilian technician and as a member of the National Guard — making him a dual-status technician. After he retired, the Social Security Administration reduced his benefits on account of the civil-service pension payments he received for his work as a civilian technician. Babcock challenged the reduction in litigation, and the Supreme Court granted review to resolve a circuit split on whether the civil-service pension granted to a dual-service technician is “a payment based wholly on service as a member of a uniformed service” that cannot be used to reduce social security benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 415(a)(7)(A)(III).

The Court held that the civil-service pension payments of dual-service technicians are not exempt because work performed as a civilian employee is not service performed as a member of a uniformed service under the plain language of the provision. The broader statutory context likewise “demonstrate[s] that Congress consistently distinguished technician employment from National Guard service.” The Court rejected Babcock’s argument that the classification of his service turned on “factors like whether he wore his uniform to work” and held that it turned instead on “how Congress classified the job.”

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

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