Reversing the Fifth Circuit’s dismissal of the case, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a 5-4 opinion Wednesday that the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board’s refusal to reopen a prior disability benefits determination for a former railroad worker is subject to judicial review.
The worker in the case, Manfredo Salinas, began seeking disability benefits in 1992 under the Railroad Retirement Act of 1974 (RRA) based on serious injuries he sustained during his 15-year career with the Union Pacific Railroad as a carpenter and assistant foreman. In 1989 a coworker dropped a sledgehammer from a bridge, hitting Salinas’ hardhat, and in 1993 a falling wooden railroad tie struck Salinas in the head.
As a result, Salinas had two spinal fusion surgeries, and he continued to experience pain, anxiety, and depression. His first three applications for disability benefits were denied, and his fourth one was granted in 2013.
Salinas sought and was denied reconsideration of the amount and start date of his benefits. He then filed an administrative appeal, arguing that his third application, which was filed in 2006, should be reopened because the retirement board hadn’t considered certain medical records when it denied that request.
The board declined to reopen the application because it wasn’t made within four years of the 2006 decision to deny it (20 C.F.R. §261.2(b)). The Fifth Circuit dismissed Salinas’ petition for review for lack of jurisdiction, holding that federal courts can’t review the retirement board’s refusal to reopen a prior determination. The court noted a longstanding circuit split on the issue.
Authoring the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that section 231g of the RRA makes judicial review available under that law to the same extent that it’s available under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA) — and that this case therefore turns on the RUIA’s judicial review provision (45 U. S. C. § 355(f)).
To qualify for judicial review under that provision, Sotomayor wrote, the retirement board’s refusal to reopen Salinas’ 2006 application must constitute “any final decision of the Board.”
The majority held that the refusal does constitute such a decision because it was the “terminal event” in the board’s administrative review process, and reopening an application “entails substantive changes that affect benefits and obligations under the RRA.”
“If reopening is granted, any revision the Board makes may be reviewed in the same manner as a primary determination of benefits,” Sotomayor wrote. “In light of these features, a decision about reopening fits within the meaning of ‘any final decision’ as that phrase is used in §355(f ).”
And to the extent that there is any ambiguity in the meaning of “any final decision,” the majority held, it must be resolved in Salinas’ favor under the strong presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action (Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC (2015) 575 U. S. 480, 486).
Justice Clarence Thomas authored the four-justice dissent, writing that although the RRA references the RUIA to explain how to obtain judicial review, “it defines separately what may be reviewed — the key issue here.” Because the retirement board’s decision in this case didn’t determine any right or liability, Thomas wrote, the RRA doesn’t provide for judicial review.
Counsel for the parties could not be immediately reached for comment on the ruling.
The case is Salinas v. U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, case number 19-199, in the Supreme Court of the United States.
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