Divided court favors judicial review of agency’s decision on railroad workers’ benefits


The Supreme Court pictured in November 2020, when Salinas vs. U.S. Railroad Retirement Board has been argued. (Katie Barlow)

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court handed down its first 5-4 decision in a hotly contested 2020-21 term case — though not in a searing constitutional case, but in a narrow statutory dispute over jurisdiction. The question in Salinas vs. U.S. Railroad Retirement Board concerned the availability of judicial review for certain decisions of the Railroad Retirement Board, the independent body responsible for awarding and denying pensions, unemployment benefits and sickness benefits to railroad workers nationwide. In a split decision, the Supreme Court ruled that when the board refuses to reopen a former railroad worker’s determination of prior benefits, that refusal can be reviewed by a court. The decision represents another in a series of recent rulings rejecting the agencies’ efforts to protect their decisions from judicial review.

The case stems from a series of claims for benefits filed by Manfredo Salinas, a former railroad worker who suffered serious injuries on the job and filed multiple disability claims under the Railroad Retirement Act of iron. The board initially dismissed Salinas’ claims, but then reversed course on one of them. Salinas then asked the board to reopen another of his previously denied claims, citing new evidence that he had been disabled at the time of that claim. The board declined to reopen its decision, and the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit denied its motion challenging that denial, joining a majority of the circuits in arguing that the board’s denial of a request for reopening is not subject to judicial review.

The majority opinion of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh, began with a proposition on which both parties agreed: that the possibility of judicial review for Salinas’ claim under the retirement law rests on the meaning of another one the Railway Act — the Railway Unemployment Insurance Act — which the Retirement Act refers to. Sotomayor therefore first turned to Section 355(f) of the Unemployment Insurance Act, which allows for review of “any final decision” of the board. This broad sentence, Sotomayor explained, indicates that Congress granted judicial review for everything decisions that pass the familiar two-part test of “final agency action” reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act. As long as the agency’s decision marks the end of its decision-making process and affects rights or responsibilities, the decision is reviewable.

As part of this, Sotomayor explained, the board’s rejection of a request to reopen passes the rally: It’s the “final event” in the board’s review process, and it “involves substantial changes” that affect the claimant’s “benefits and obligations” under the pension. Law. Sotomayor also pointed out that the council’s decision to reopen – as befits its “substantial nature” – is guided by “objective criteria”, such as whether the claimant has identified new evidence warranting a fresh look.

To defend its contrary position that requests for reopening are not reviewable, the government had raised a series of textual arguments aimed at showing that the expression “any final decision” should be understood in a more restrictive way. More importantly, the government had argued that cross-referencing section 355(f) to a different The subsection of the same law revealed Congress’ intent to limit review only to agency decisions listed in that other subsection — refusals to reopen are not among them. But Sotomayor dismissed those arguments across the board, sticking to the broader reading of Salinas’ key phrase.

She also explained that any uncertainty about the scope of Section 355(f) “must be resolved in favor of Salinas” under the frequently invoked “presumption in favor of judicial review of administrative action.” The government bore the burden of overcoming that presumption, Sotomayor explained, and here its analysis of the legislative text failed to do so. Finally, Sotomayor rejected the government’s argument that, in practice, allowing parties to seek judicial review of applications to reopen previous benefit determinations would even discourage counsel from to offer reopening; after all, no law requires the council to authorize reopening in the first place. But echoing a recent ruling that rejected a similar “count your blessings” argument, Sotomayor explained that once the board Is decide to offer reopening – as he did – the reviewability of his reopening decisions is governed by “the plain text of section 355(f)”.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined in dissent by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, did not dispute the majority’s reading of section 355(f): he acknowledged that the majority “may well correctly interpret the judicial review provision located in the Railway Unemployment Insurance Act. But in his view, the court could not turn to the Unemployment Insurance Act without first considering the provision directly governing the judicial review of Salinas’ claim for benefits — the Retirement Act.

Thomas explained that although the Superannuation Act provides for judicial review of board decisions “in the same way» than the Unemployment Insurance Act, the Pension Act further limits type of the actions of the Board of Directors subject to this review: it only covers “[d]Board decisions determine the rights or obligations of any person.” Reopening refusals, according to Thomas, do not determine rights and responsibilities. The reopening of a previous refusal is purely discretionary, no law or regulation creating a right to the reopening of the procedure. Congress’s clear reference to “rights and responsibilities” thus dismisses any presumption in favor of judicial review, and Thomas considered the presumption to be “further undermined” because Salinas arguably did having the opportunity to seek judicial review in 2006, after the board initially denied his request.

The sharply split result in Salinas’ favor may come as a bit of a surprise after the closing argument, during which — as our analysis noted — Kavanaugh was the only one to openly favor Salinas’ interpretation. Roberts, who ultimately provided a fifth majority vote for Sotomayor, was the first to argue over the wording of the pension law’s ‘rights and responsibilities’, signaling skepticism about whether that text covered denials reopening discretionary. But the chief justice ultimately declined to join Thomas in adopting that argument, perhaps because he believed the presumption in favor of judicial review severed the tie in favor of Salinas. The Chief Justice has written several important opinions in cases applying this presumption to dismiss agency attempts to prevent judicial review, including: US Army Corps of Engineers vs. Hawkes Co. (featuring prominently in the majority opinion here); Department of Commerce vs. New York (stop adding a citizenship question to the census); and Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB (remembered primarily for its separation of powers, but also to resolve important reviewability issues). Nor are the chief’s views in favor of review isolated: with few exceptions, the court in recent years has generally interpreted judicial review laws to hold agencies accountable by allowing courts to review their decisions. Wednesday’s decision in favor of Salinas continues the trend.