Berry v. U.S. Dep't of Labor

Decision Date11 August 2016
Docket NumberNo. 15-6316,15-6316
Citation832 F.3d 627
Parties Clarence S. Berry, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. United States Department of Labor, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

ARGUED: D. Sean Nilsen, Furman & Nilsen, PLLC, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellant. Terry M. Cushing, United States Attorney's Office, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: D. Sean Nilsen, Furman & Nilsen, PLLC, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellant. Monica Wheatley, United States Attorney's Office, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee.

Before: GIBBONS, GRIFFIN, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

GRIFFIN, Circuit Judge.

The Administrative Procedure Act authorizes judicial review of “final agency action,” subject to certain limitations. One of those limitations applies to decisions “committed to agency discretion by law.” Plaintiff Clarence Berry challenges the Department of Labor's refusal to reopen his claim for compensation benefits based on new evidence. The Department contends the APA does not authorize judicial review of such decisions, both because they are not a “final agency action” and because they are “committed to agency discretion by law.” We disagree on both points. The decision not to reopen Berry's claim for benefits based on new evidence satisfies the Supreme Court's litmus test for “final agency action,” and it is not the type of decision the Supreme Court has recognized as being “committed to agency discretion by law.” However, we nonetheless conclude that the district court properly dismissed plaintiff's complaint because his reopening request was not actually based on new evidence. It instead alleged a material error in the agency's initial decision. That distinction is critical because, under Supreme Court precedent, reopening requests based on material error are “committed to agency discretion by law” and therefore unreviewable. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

I.

In 2000, Congress enacted the little-known Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, 42 U.S.C. § 7384 et seq . (“EEOICPA” or the Act). The purpose of the Act was to provide compensation and other services to current and former U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) employees and contractors (or their survivors) who developed illnesses relating to exposure to ultra-hazardous substances at DOE sites. See 42 U.S.C. § 7384. In its current form, the Act establishes two compensation programs, creatively referred to as Part B and Part E for their placement in the statutory taxonomy. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 7384l –7384w–1 (Part B) & §§ 7385s–7385s–16 (Part E). This case involves a claim under Part B.

Under Part B, a “covered employee” (or his or her survivor) is entitled to a lump sum payment of $150,000 “for the disability or death of that employee from that employee's occupational illness.” 42 U.S.C. § 7384s(a)(1). To claim benefits under Part B, a person must file a claim with the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP), submitting evidence verifying employment at a “DOE facility,” as well as a recognized occupational illness. See, e.g. , 20 C.F.R. § 30.205. The adjudication process culminates in a final decision by the Final Adjudication Branch (FAB), 20 C.F.R. §§ 30.300, 30.316, which the claimant has an opportunity to challenge in federal court, 20 C.F.R. § 30.319(d).

Pertinent here, the process also allows for reopening of claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 30.320. A claimant may request to reopen his or her claim [a]t any time after the FAB has issued a final decision” by submitting “new evidence of either covered employment or exposure to a toxic substance” or identifying a change in the medical guidelines. Id. § 30.320(b) ; see also id. § 30.320(a) (authorizing the Director of the compensation program to reopen a claim at any time). The Director must then determine whether the new evidence “is material to the claim.” Id. § 30.320(b)(1). If so, the Director will reopen the claim and return it to the OWCP for a new recommended decision. Id. The regulations provide that [t]he decision whether or not to reopen a claim under this section is solely within the discretion of the Director ... and is not reviewable.” Id. § 30.320(c).

II.

Plaintiff Clarence Berry is the son of Leslie Berry, Jr. In the early 1950s, Leslie worked for various construction subcontractors, including installing insulation for the Breiding Insulation Company between October and December 1952. During that time, Breiding did subcontracting work at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Everyone agrees the Paducah Plant is a “DOE facility” within the meaning of the Act. Less clear, however, is whether Leslie actually performed work at the Paducah Plant. Breiding's employment records were destroyed in a fire. And the local Insulators Union has no record of Leslie's work history because he was not a member of that union; he worked on a temporary permit and, according to the union, “records were not kept on the temporary workers.” As a result, there are no records of the specific job sites on which Leslie performed work for Breiding in 1952.

Fast-forward fifty years. Leslie died in 1995. Five years later, Congress passed the EEOICPA. Three years after that, on December 12, 2003, Leslie's son, Clarence Berry, filed a claim under Part B of the EEOICPA, seeking compensation as a survivor of a “covered beryllium employee.” See 42 U.S.C. § 7384l (1)(A). Berry submitted his father's medical records and employment history information, including a Social Security Administration record identifying Leslie's employers during the relevant time period. After investigating the claim, the OWCP determined it could not verify Leslie's employment at a DOE facility. It recommended Berry's claim be denied because he failed to “establish[ ] that Leslie A. Berry, Jr., was a covered employee, by providing the employment evidence required to establish that he worked at a covered DOE facility.” On September 2, 2004, the FAB accepted the recommendation and denied Berry's claim.

Berry did not ask the Department to reconsider its denial or seek judicial review of the agency's decision. Instead, ten years later, on July 2, 2014, Berry filed a request to reopen his claim under 20 C.F.R. § 30.320. He contended that new employment evidence confirmed that Leslie was employed by Breiding at the Paducah Plant. Here is how Berry explained this “new evidence”:

Mr. Leslie Berry was employed by Breiding/Breeding Insulation from October 1952December 1952 (attached statement of social security earnings). Breeding Insulation held a contract with Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant from July 1952October 1953 (attached Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant sub-contractor list).
When Mr. Berry's employment verification was researched by CPWR [the Center for Protection of Worker's Rights] it was found that Breiding Insulation records were destroyed in a fire. Mr. Berry belonged to Cement Masons Local 125 but worked on a permit through the Insulators Local. Because he was not a member of the Insulators Union, records are unavailable (attached CPWR research results).

On October 29, 2014, the Director denied the reopening request because [a] review of the records submitted ... [found] the documents [were] duplicate to evidence already reviewed and considered in the final decision of September 2, 2004.”

Berry then filed this suit, challenging the Department's decision denying his request to reopen. The Department moved to dismiss the case, arguing that plaintiff failed to state a claim under the APA “because [the refusal to reopen] is not a ‘final agency action’ pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 704.” The district court granted the Department's motion, dismissing plaintiff's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction because the Department's refusal to reopen was not the type of agency action subject to judicial review under the APA. Plaintiff appeals.

III.

This court has appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. The district court had subject-matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. See Reno v. Catholic Soc. Servs., Inc. , 509 U.S. 43, 56, 113 S.Ct. 2485, 125 L.Ed.2d 38 (1993) (stating that 28 U.S.C. § 1331... confers jurisdiction on federal courts to review agency action” (quotation marks and brackets omitted)). To the extent the district court granted the Department's motion to dismiss on lack-of-jurisdiction grounds, it was mistaken. See Jama v. Dep't of Homeland Sec. , 760 F.3d 490, 494 (6th Cir. 2014). The Department's challenge to the availability of judicial review under the APA is properly analyzed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and whether plaintiff has stated a valid claim for relief. Id. at 494 n.4 & 495. The district court's procedural error is ultimately harmless because “nothing in [its] analysis ... turned on the mistake, [and] a remand would only require a new Rule 12(b)(6) label for the same Rule 12(b)(1) conclusion.” Morrison v. Nat'l Australia Bank Ltd. , 561 U.S. 247, 254, 130 S.Ct. 2869, 177 L.Ed.2d 535 (2010).

We review de novo a district court's order dismissing a claim for failure to state a claim. Jama , 760 F.3d at 494. In reviewing a motion based on Rule 12(b)(6), we accept all allegations in the complaint as true and determine whether the allegations plausibly state a claim for relief.” Roberts v. Hamer , 655 F.3d 578, 581 (6th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). The same de novo standard of review applies to questions of statutory interpretation. Id. at 582.

IV.

The question presented—whether the Department's decision not to reopen Berry's claim is subject to judicial review—is one of first impression, at least as it pertains to the EEOICPA. But the framework for our analysis is well-defined. The APA authorizes aggrieved individuals to seek judicial review of agency decisions, subject to certain conditions. 5 U.S.C. § 702. First, the challenged action must be “made reviewable by statute or be a “final...

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