Roberts v. Sea-Land Servs., Inc.

Decision Date20 March 2012
Docket NumberNo. 10–1399.,10–1399.
Citation566 U.S. 93,132 S.Ct. 1350,182 L.Ed.2d 341
Parties Dana ROBERTS, Petitioner v. SEA–LAND SERVICES, INC., et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Joshua T. Gillelan, II, Washington, DC, for petitioner.

Joseph R. Palmore, Washington, DC, for federal respondent.

Peter D. Keisler, Washington, DC, for private respondent.

Frank B. Hugg, Oakland, CA, Carter G. Phillips, Peter D. Keisler, Eric D. McArthur, Joshua J. Fougere, Sidley Austin LLP, Washington, DC, for Respondent Sea–Land Services, Inc.

M. Patricia Smith, Solicitor of Labor, Rae Ellen Frank James, Associate Solicitor, Sean G. Bajkowski, Mark A. Reinhalter, Counsel, Matthew W. Boyle, Attorney, Department of Labor, Washington, DC, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Edwin S. Kneedler, Deputy Solicitor General, Joseph R. Palmore, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Federal Respondent.

Michael F. Pozzi, Renton, WA, Joshua T. Gillelan II, Counsel of Record, Washington, DC, for Petitioner Roberts.

Justice SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA or Act), ch. 509, 44 Stat. 1424, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq., caps benefits for most types of disability at twice the national average weekly wage for the fiscal year in which an injured employee is "newly awarded compensation." § 906(c). We hold that an employee is "newly awarded compensation" when he first becomes disabled and thereby becomes statutorily entitled to benefits, no matter whether, or when, a compensation order issues on his behalf.


The LHWCA "is a comprehensive scheme to provide compensation 'in respect of disability or death of an employee ... if the disability or death results from an injury occurring upon the navigable waters of the United States.' " Metropolitan Stevedore Co. v. Rambo, 515 U.S. 291, 294, 115 S.Ct. 2144, 132 L.Ed.2d 226 (1995) (quoting § 903(a)). An employee's compensation depends on the severity of his disability and his preinjury pay. A totally disabled employee, for example, is entitled to two-thirds of his preinjury average weekly wage as long as he remains disabled. §§ 908(a)(b), 910.

Section 906, however, sets a cap on compensation.1 Disability benefits "shall not exceed" twice "the applicable national average weekly wage." § 906(b)(1). The national average weekly wage—"the national average weekly earnings of production or nonsupervisory workers on private nonagricultural payrolls," § 902(19)—is recalculated by the Secretary of Labor each fiscal year. § 906(b)(3). For most types of disability, the "applicable" national average weekly wage is the figure for the fiscal year in which a beneficiary is "newly awarded compensation," and the cap remains constant as long as benefits continue. § 906(c).2

Consistent with the central bargain of workers' compensation regimes—limited liability for employers; certain, prompt recovery for employees—the LHWCA requires that employers pay benefits voluntarily, without formal administrative proceedings. Once an employee provides notice of a disabling injury, his employer must pay compensation "periodically, promptly, and directly ... without an award, except where liability to pay compensation is controverted." § 914(a). In general, employers pay benefits without contesting liability. See Pallas Shipping Agency, Ltd. v. Duris, 461 U.S. 529, 532, 103 S.Ct. 1991, 76 L.Ed.2d 120 (1983). In the mine run of cases, therefore, no compensation orders issue.

If an employer controverts, or if an employee contests his employer's actions with respect to his benefits, the dispute advances to the Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP). See 20 CFR §§ 702.251 – 702.262 (2011). The OWCP district directors "are empowered to amicably and promptly resolve such problems by informal procedures." § 702.301. A district director's informal disposition may result in a compensation order. § 702.315(a). In practice, however, "many pending claims are amicably settled through voluntary payments without the necessity of a formal order." Intercounty Constr. Corp. v. Walter, 422 U.S. 1, 4, n. 4, 95 S.Ct. 2016, 44 L.Ed.2d 643 (1975). If informal resolution fails, the district director refers the dispute to an administrative law judge (ALJ). See 20 CFR §§ 702.316, 702.331 – 702.351. An ALJ's decision after a hearing culminates in the entry of a compensation order. 33 U.S.C. §§ 919(c)(e).3


In fiscal year 2002, petitioner Dana Roberts slipped and fell on a patch of ice while employed at respondent Sea–Land Services' marine terminal in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Roberts injured his neck and shoulder and did not return to work. On receiving notice of his disability, Sea–Land (except for a six-week period in 2003) voluntarily paid Roberts benefits absent a compensation order until fiscal year 2005. When Sea–Land discontinued voluntary payments, Roberts filed an LHWCA claim, and Sea–Land controverted. In fiscal year 2007, after a hearing, an ALJ awarded Roberts benefits at the statutory maximum rate of $966.08 per week. This was twice the national average weekly wage for fiscal year 2002, the fiscal year when Roberts became disabled.

Roberts moved for reconsideration, arguing that the "applicable" national average weekly wage was the figure for fiscal year 2007, the fiscal year when he was "newly awarded compensation" by the ALJ's order. The latter figure would have entitled Roberts to $1,114.44 per week. The ALJ denied reconsideration, and the Department of Labor's Benefits Review Board (or BRB) affirmed, concluding that "the pertinent maximum rate is determined by the date the disability commences." App. to Pet. for Cert. 20. The Ninth Circuit affirmed in relevant part, holding that an employee "is 'newly awarded compensation' within the meaning of [ § 906(c) ] when he first becomes entitled to compensation." Roberts v. Director, OWCP, 625 F.3d 1204, 1208 (2010)(per curiam) . We granted certiorari, 564 U.S. ––––, 132 S.Ct. 71, 180 L.Ed.2d 939 (2011), to resolve a conflict among the Circuits with respect to the time when a beneficiary is "newly awarded compensation," and now affirm.4


Roberts contends that "awarded compensation" means "awarded compensation in a formal order." Sea–Land, supported by the Director, OWCP, responds that "awarded compensation" means "statutorily entitled to compensation because of disability." The text of § 906(c), standing alone, admits of either interpretation. But "our task is to fit, if possible, all parts into an harmonious whole." FTC v. Mandel Brothers, Inc., 359 U.S. 385, 389, 79 S.Ct. 818, 3 L.Ed.2d 893 (1959). Only the interpretation advanced by Sea–Land and the Director makes § 906 a working part of the statutory scheme; supplies an administrable rule that results in equal treatment of similarly situated beneficiaries; and avoids gamesmanship in the claims process. In light of these contextual and structural considerations, we hold that an employee is "newly awarded compensation" when he first becomes disabled and thereby becomes statutorily entitled to benefits under the Act, no matter whether, or when, a compensation order issues on his behalf.


We first consider "whether the language at issue has a plain and unambiguous meaning with regard to the particular dispute in the case." Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 340, 117 S.Ct. 843, 136 L.Ed.2d 808 (1997). The LHWCA does not define "awarded," but in construing the Act, as with any statute, " 'we look first to its language, giving the words used their ordinary meaning.' " Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc. v. Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, 519 U.S. 248, 255, 117 S.Ct. 796, 136 L.Ed.2d 736 (1997) (quoting Moskal v. United States, 498 U.S. 103, 108, 111 S.Ct. 461, 112 L.Ed.2d 449 (1990) ). At first blush, Roberts' position is appealing. In ordinary usage, "award" most often means "give by judicial decree" or "assign after careful judgment." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 152 (2002); see also, e.g., Black's Law Dictionary 157 (9th ed. 2009) ("grant by formal process or by judicial decree").

But "award" can also mean "grant," or "confer or bestow upon." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, at 152; see also ibid. (1971 ed.) (same). The LHWCA "grants" benefits to disabled employees, and so can be said to "award" compensation by force of its entitlement-creating provisions. Indeed, this Court has often said that statutes "award" entitlements. See, e.g., Astrue v. Ratliff, 560 U.S. ––––, ––––, 130 S.Ct. 2521, 2525, 177 L.Ed.2d 91 (2010) (referring to "statutes that award attorney's fees to a prevailing party"); Barber v. Thomas, 560 U.S. ––––, ––––, 130 S.Ct. 2499, 2511, 177 L.Ed.2d 1 (2010) (appendix to majority opinion) (statute "awards" good-time credits to federal prisoners); New Energy Co. of Ind. v. Limbach, 486 U.S. 269, 271, 108 S.Ct. 1803, 100 L.Ed.2d 302 (1988) (Ohio statute "awards a tax credit"); Pacific Employers Ins. Co. v. Industrial Accident Comm'n, 306 U.S. 493, 500, 59 S.Ct. 629, 83 L.Ed. 940 (1939) (California workers' compensation statute "award[s] compensation for injuries to an employee"); see also, e.g., Connecticut v. Doehr, 501 U.S. 1, 28, 111 S.Ct. 2105, 115 L.Ed.2d 1 (1991) (Rehnquist, C.J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) ("Materialman's and mechanic's lien statutes award an interest in real property to workers"). Similarly, this Court has described an employee's survivors as "having been 'newly awarded' death benefits" by virtue of the employee's death, without any reference to a formal order. Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs v. Rasmussen,

440 U.S. 29, 44, n. 16, 99 S.Ct. 903, 59 L.Ed.2d 122 (1979) (quoting § 906(c)'s predecessor provision, 33 U.S.C. § 906(d) (1976 ed.) ).

In short, the text of § 906(c), in isolation, is indeterminate.


Statutory language, however, "cannot be construed in a...

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