Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc

Citation102 S.Ct. 3245,458 U.S. 564,73 L.Ed.2d 973,1982 A.M.C. 2377
Decision Date30 June 1982
Docket NumberNo. 81-614,81-614
PartiesDanny L. GRIFFIN, Petitioner v. OCEANIC CONTRACTORS, INC
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus

Title 46 U.S.C. § 596, after obligating the master or owner of a vessel making coasting or foreign voyages to pay a seaman's unpaid wages within specified periods after his discharge, provides that a master or owner who fails to make such payment "without sufficient cause shall pay to the seaman a sum equal to two days' pay for each and every day during which payment is delayed beyond the respective periods." Petitioner, who was injured while working aboard respondent's vessel in foreign waters, brought suit under the Jones Act and general maritime law in Federal District Court after respondent refused to pay his medical expenses and to furnish transportation back to the United States. In addition to damages, petitioner sought to recover penalty wages under § 596 for respondent's failure to pay $412.50 in earned wages allegedly due upon discharge. The court found, inter alia, that petitioner had been discharged from respondent's employ on the day of the injury, and that respondent's failure to pay petitioner the $412.50 was "without sufficient cause." In assessing the penalty wages at $6,881.60, the court held that "[t]he period during which the penalty runs is to be determined by the sound discretion of the district court and depends on the equities of the case." It determined that the appropriate penalty period was the 34-day period from the date of discharge through the date when petitioner began work for another company. Petitioner appealed the award of damages as inadequate, but the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held : The district courts have no discretion to limit the period during which the wage penalty is assessed. Imposition of the penalty is mandatory for each day that payment is withheld in violation of § 596. Pp. 569-577.

(a) The words chosen by Congress, given their plain meaning, leave no room for the exercise of discretion either in deciding whether to exact payment or in choosing the period of days by which the payment is to be calculated. After the District Court found that respondent had refused to pay petitioner the balance of his earned wages promptly after discharge and that its refusal was "without sufficient cause," nothing in § 596's language vested the court with discretion to limit the penalty assessment to the period of petitioner's unemployment. Pp. 569-571. (b) This is not the type of case where literal application of a statute would thwart its obvious purpose. Section 596's "evident purpose" is "to secure prompt payment of seamen's wages . . . and thus to protect them from the harsh consequences of arbitrary and unscrupulous action of their employers, to which, as a class, they are peculiarly exposed." Collie v. Fergusson, 281 U.S. 52, 55, 50 S.Ct. 189, 191, 74 L.Ed. 696. Although the statute's purpose is remedial, Congress has chosen to secure that purpose through the use of potentially punitive sanctions designed to deter negligent or arbitrary delays in payment. The legislative history confirms that Congress intended the statute to mean exactly what its plain language says. Pp. 571-574.

(c) Nor is literal application of § 596 in this case precluded on the asserted ground that it would produce an absurd and unjust result which Congress could not have intended. Even though the penalty for respondent's failure to promptly pay the $412.50 in wages—if computed on the basis of the period from petitioner's discharge until the date respondent actually paid the wages by satisfying the District Court's judgment—would be over $300,000, awards made under § 596 were not intended to be merely compensatory. Since the District Court found that respondent's refusal to pay petitioner following his discharge was without sufficient cause, and since it made no finding that respondent's continuing delay in payment beyond the period petitioner was unable to work was for sufficient cause, its decision to limit the penalty was error. Pacific Mail S.S. Co. v. Schmidt, 241 U.S. 245, 36 S.Ct. 581, 60 L.Ed. 982. Pp. 574-577.

5th Cir., 664 F.2d 36, reversed and remanded.

Robert A. Chaffin, Houston, Tex., for petitioner.

Theodore Goller, Houston, Tex., for respondent.

Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the application of 46 U.S.C. § 596, which requires certain masters and vessel owners to pay seamen promptly after their discharge and authorizes seamen to recover double wages for each day that payment is delayed without sufficient cause. The question is whether the district courts, in the exercise of discretion, may limit the period during which this wage penalty is assessed, or whether imposition of the penalty is mandatory for each day that payment is withheld in violation of the statute.

I

On February 18, 1976, petitioner signed an employment contract with respondent in New Orleans, agreeing to work as a senior pipeline welder on board vessels operated by respondent in the North Sea. The contract specified that petitioner's employment would extend "until December 15, 1976 or until Oceanic's 1976 pipeline committal in the North Sea is fulfilled, whichever shall occur first." App. 41. The contract also provided that respondent would pay for transportation to and from the worksite, but that if petitioner quit the job prior to its termination date, or if his services were terminated for cause, he would be charged with the cost of transportation back to the United States. Respondent reserved the right to withhold $137.50 from each of petitioner's first four paychecks "as a cash deposit for the payment of your return transportation in the event you should become obligated for its payment." Id., at 47. On March 6, 1976, petitioner flew from the United States to Antwerp, Belgium, where he reported to work at respondent's vessel, the "Lay Barge 27," berthed in the Antwerp harbor for repairs.

On April 1, 1976, petitioner suffered an injury while working on the deck of the vessel readying it for sea. Two days later he underwent emergency surgery in Antwerp. On April 5, petitioner was discharged from the hospital and went to respondent's Antwerp office, where he spoke with Jesse Williams, the welding superintendent, and provided a physician's statement that he was not fit for duty. Williams refused to acknowledge that petitioner's injury was work- related and denied that respondent was liable for medical and hospital expenses, maintenance, or unearned wages. Williams also refused to furnish transportation back to the United States, and continued to retain $412.50 in earned wages that had been deducted from petitioner's first three paychecks for that purpose. Petitioner returned to his home in Houston, Tex., the next day at his own expense. He was examined there by a physician who determined that he would be able to resume work on May 3, 1976. On May 5, petitioner began working as a welder for another company operating in the North Sea.

In 1978 he brought suit against respondent under the Jones Act, § 20, 38 Stat. 1185, as amended, 46 U.S.C. § 688, and under general maritime law, seeking damages for respondent's failure to pay maintenance, cure, unearned wages, repatriation expenses, and the value of certain personal effects lost on board respondent's vessel. Petitioner also sought penalty wages under Rev.Stat. § 4529, as amended, 46 U.S.C. § 596, for respondent's failure to pay over the $412.50 in earned wages allegedly due upon discharge. The District Court found for petitioner and awarded damages totalling $23,670.40.

Several findings made by that court are particularly relevant to this appeal. First, the court found that petitioner's injury was proximately caused by an unseaworthy condition of respondent's vessel. App. 17, ¶ 10; 23, ¶ 6. Second, the court found that petitioner was discharged from respondent's employ on the day of the injury, and that the termination of his employment was caused solely by that injury. Id., at 18, ¶ 16; 23, ¶ 7.1 Third, it found that respondent's failure to pay petitioner the $412.50 in earned wages was "without suffi- cient cause." Id., at 20, ¶ 20; 25, ¶ 11.2 Finally, the court found that petitioner had exercised due diligence in attempting to collect those wages. Id., at 20, ¶ 21.

In assessing penalty wages under 46 U.S.C. § 596, the court held that "[t]he period during which the penalty runs is to be determined by the sound discretion of the district court and depends on the equities of the case." App. 25, ¶ 11. It determined that the appropriate period for imposition of the penalty was from the date of discharge, April 1, 1976, through the date of petitioner's reemployment, May 5, 1976, a period of 34 days. Applying the statute, it computed a penalty of $6,881.60.3 Petitioner appealed the award of damages as inadequate.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 664 F.2d 36 (1981). That court concluded, inter alia, that the District Court had not erred in limiting assessment of the penalty provided by 46 U.S.C. § 596 to the period beginning April 1 and ending May 5. The court recognized that the statute required payment of a penalty for each day during which wages were withheld until the date they were actually paid, which in this case did not occur until September 17, 1980, when respondent satisfied the judgment of the District Court. Id., at 40; see App. 30. Nevertheless, the court believed itself bound by prior decisions within the Circuit, which left calculation of the penalty period to the sound discretion of the district courts. 664 F.2d, at 40. It concluded that the District Court in this case had not abused its discretion by assessing a penalty only for the period during which petitioner was unemployed.

We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Circuits regarding the proper application of the wage penalty statute.4 454 U.S....

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