519 U.S. 248 (1997), 95-1081, Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc. v. DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF WORKERS’ COMPENSATION PROGRAMS

Docket Nº:Case No. 95-1081
Citation:519 U.S. 248, 117 S.Ct. 796, 136 L.Ed.2d 736, 65 U.S.L.W. 4077
Case Date:February 18, 1997
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 248

519 U.S. 248 (1997)

117 S.Ct. 796, 136 L.Ed.2d 736, 65 U.S.L.W. 4077




Case No. 95-1081

United States Supreme Court

February 18, 1997

         Argued November 12, 1996



While working for petitioner Ingalls as a shipfitter, Jefferson Yates was exposed to asbestos. After he was diagnosed as suffering from asbestosis and related conditions, he filed a claim for disability benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA or Act). Ingalls admitted compensability and eventually settled with Mr. Yates, who, in the meantime, had sued the manufacturers and suppliers of the asbestos products that were allegedly present in his workplace when he contracted asbestosis. Before his death, he settled with some of these defendants, each of whom required releases from respondent Yates, Mr. Yates' wife, even though she was not a party to the litigation. None of these predeath settlements was approved by Ingalls. After Mr. Yates' death, Mrs. Yates filed a claim for death benefits under the Act. Ingalls contested the claim under Act § 33(g)(1), which states: "If the person entitled to compensation . . . enters into a settlement with a third person. . . for an amount less than the compensation to which the person . . . would be entitled under this [Act], the employer shall be liable for compensation . . . only if written approval of the settlement is obtained from the employer . . . before the settlement is executed." The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled for Mrs. Yates, and the Benefits Review Board (Board) affirmed, holding that, at the time she executed the predeath settlements, she was not a "person entitled to compensation" under § 33(g)(1) because her husband still lived, and, therefore, her right to death benefits had not yet vested. The Fifth Circuit agreed and affirmed. The court also rejected Ingalls' argument that the Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP), lacked standing to participate as a respondent in the appeal of a Board decision.


         1. Before an injured worker's death, the worker's spouse is not a "person entitled to compensation" for death benefits within § 33(g)'s

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meaning, and does not forfeit the right to collect death benefits under the Act for failure to obtain the worker's employer's approval of settlements entered into before the worker's death. Section 33(g)(1)'s plain language reveals two salient points. First, the use of the present tense (i. e., "enters") indicates that the "person entitled to compensation" must be so entitled at the time of settlement. Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Co., 505 U.S. 469, 475. Second, the ordinary meaning of the word "entitle" indicates that the "person entitled to compensation" must at the very least be qualified to receive compensation. Id., at 477. Thus, the relevant inquiry in this case is whether Mrs. Yates satisfied the prerequisites for obtaining death benefits under the Act at the time she signed the releases contained in the predeath settlements. Taken together, § 9 of the Act, which governs the distribution of death benefits, and § 2, which contains relevant definitions, indicate that a surviving spouse qualifies for death benefits only if: (i) the survivor's deceased worker-spouse dies from a work-related injury; (ii) the survivor is married to the worker-spouse at the time of death; and (iii) the survivor is either living with the worker-spouse, dependent upon the worker-spouse, or living apart from the worker-spouse because of desertion or other justifiable cause at the time of death. It is impossible to ascertain whether these prerequisites have been met at any time prior to the death of the injured worker. The Court therefore rejects the argument that a person seeking death benefits under the Act can satisfy the prerequisites for those benefits at any earlier time— e. g., when the worker is initially injured or when the worker enters into a predeath settlement. Because Mrs. Yates' husband was alive at the time she signed the releases, she was not a "person entitled to compensation" at that time and was therefore not obligated to seek Ingalls' approval to preserve her entitlement to statutory death benefits. Ingalls' arguments to the contrary—that § 33(g)(1) effectively brings any person who "would be entitled" to compensation within its purview, and that strict adherence to the section's plain language is at odds with the Act's underlying policy of avoiding double recovery—are unpersuasive. Pp. 255-262.

        2. Although the Act itself does not speak to the issue, the right to appear as a respondent before the courts of appeals is conferred upon the Director, OWCP, by Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 15(a), which, in pertinent part, states: "Review of an order of an administrative. . . board . . . must be obtained by filing with the clerk of a court of appeals . . . [the appropriate form]. . . . In each case, the agency must be named respondent." (Emphasis added.) The Court declines to adopt the narrower reading of Rule 15(a) set forth in Parker v. Director,

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OWCP, 75 F.3d 929, 934 (CA4), and McCord v. Benefits Review Board, 514 F.2d 198, 200 (CADC). Where a single overarching agency has two subagencies that wear the hats of, respectively, litigator/enforcer and adjudicator, the "agency" that must be named as a respondent under Rule 15(a) is the overarching agency, which is free to designate its enforcer/litigator as its voice before the courts of appeals. It is not necessary that the overarching agency have absolute veto power over the decisions of its adjudicator, so long as it has substantial control over those decisions. By statute and regulation, the LHWCA adjudicative and enforcement/litigation functions of the Department of Labor are divided between the ALJ's and the Board on the one hand, and the Director on the other, and the Secretary of Labor has named the Director as the Department's designated litigant in the courts of appeals. The Department is thus the "agency" for Rule 15(a) purposes, and the Court concludes that the Director may be named as a respondent in the courts of appeals. Although the Director does not always have the right to appeal as a petitioner to those courts, Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs v. Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., 514 U.S. 122, 135-136, this does not result in a "lopsided" representation scheme whereby the Director can appear only in defense of the Board's decisions. The Director, even as a respondent, is free to argue on behalf of the petitioner, see Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs v. Perini North River Associates, 459 U.S. 297, 301, and to challenge the Board's decision. Pp. 262-270.

65 F.3d 460, affirmed.

        O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I and II, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Part III, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Thomas, J., joined, post, p. 270.

         Richard P. Salloum argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Paul B. Howell, William J. Powers, Jr., and George M. Simmerman, Jr.

         Beth S. Brinkmann argued the cause for the federal respondent. On the brief were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, J. Davitt McAteer, Allen H. Feldman, and Edward D. Sieger.

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         Wynn E. Clark argued the cause for respondent Yates. With him on the brief was Ransom P. Jones III. [*]

        Justice O'Connor delivered the opinion of the Court.

         Section 33 of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA or Act), 44 Stat. 1424, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 933, gives the "person entitled to compensation" two avenues of recovery: Such a person may seek to recover damages from the third parties ultimately at fault for any injuries and still recover compensation under the Act from the covered worker's employer as long as the worker's employer gives its approval before the person settles with any of the third party tortfeasors. The question we decide today is whether an injured worker's spouse, who may be eligible to receive death benefits under the Act after the worker dies, is a "person entitled to compensation" when the spouse enters into a settlement agreement with a third party before the worker's death. We also consider whether the Director of the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP) is a proper respondent in proceedings before the courts of appeals.


         Jefferson Yates worked for Ingalls as a shipfitter at its Pascagoula shipyards in Mississippi between 1953 and 1967 and was exposed to asbestos in his workplace during this time. In March 1981, Mr. Yates was diagnosed as suffering from asbestosis, chronic bronchitis, and possible malignancy in his lungs. Less than a month later, he filed a claim for disability benefits under § 8 of the LHWCA, 33 U.S.C. § 908, asserting that his present condition resulted from his exposure

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to asbestos while employed by Ingalls. Ingalls admitted the compensability of this claim and eventually entered into a formal settlement with Mr. Yates in satisfaction of its liability under the Act.

        Mr. Yates, in the meantime, filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court against the 23 manufacturers and suppliers of asbestos whose products were allegedly present at the Pascagoula shipyards during the period in which Mr. Yates contracted asbestosis. Before his death in 1986, Mr. Yates entered...

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