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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
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Worker Loses Claim for Higher Injury Benefits

(CN) - An Alaskan marine worker who became disabled 10 years ago after slipping on a patch of ice cannot use a more current average wages to calculate his benefits, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Dana Roberts slipped in 2002 while working for Sea-Land Services at its Dutch Harbor, Alaska, marine terminal. When Sea-Land discontinued its voluntary payment of benefits to Roberts in 2005, Roberts filed a claim under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act.

By 2007, an administrative law judge awarded Roberts benefits at the statutory maximum rate of $966.08 per week, based on the national average weekly wage in 2002.

Roberts argued, however, that the benefits should reflect the year in which he was "newly awarded compensation." At the 2007 rate, Roberts would have taken $1,114.44 a week.

After a review board and the 9th Circuit affirmed, Roberts brought the case to the Supreme Court. The justices declined to alter the judgment Tuesday.

"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," according to the majority opinion authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The 17-page decision says that Roberts' reading would "punish employers who voluntarily pay benefits at the proper rate from the time of their employees' injuries."

"These employers would owe benefits under the higher cap applicable in any future fiscal year when their employees chose to file claims," Sotomayor wrote. "And Roberts' remedy would offer no relief at all to the many beneficiaries entitled to less than the statutory maximum rate."

In a partial dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected the arguments of both Roberts and Sea-Land.

"Applying the common meaning of the verb 'award' and recognizing the act's distinction between benefits paid voluntarily, and those paid pursuant to a compensation order, I would hold that an injured worker is 'newly awarded compensation' when (1) the employer voluntarily undertakes to pay benefits to the employee, or (2) an administrative law judge (ALJ), the Benefits Review Board (BRB), or a reviewing court orders the employer to pay such benefits," Ginsburg wrote.

The justice described several scenarios to illustrate the difference of opinion. "To borrow the chief justice's example: No person who slips and injures herself on a negligently maintained sidewalk would tell her friends the next day, 'Guess what, I was newly awarded money damages yesterday,'" Ginsburg wrote.

Later she said: "Assume an employee is injured in 2002 and the employer refuses to pay compensation voluntarily. Then, five years later, an ALJ finds in favor of the employee and orders the employer to pay benefits to the employee. Under the court's view, the employee was 'newly awarded compen­sation' in 2002, even though the employee did not receive a penny - and the employer was not obligated to pay a penny - until 2007. Only the most strained interpretation of 'newly awarded' could demand that result."

Ginsberg says Roberts was "newly awarded compensation" three times, by her count.

"Roberts was therefore entitled to the fiscal year 2002 maximum rate from March 11, 2002 until July 15, 2003; the fiscal year 2003 maximum rate from September 1, 2003 until May 17, 2005; and the fiscal year 2007 rate going forward and for all uncompensated weeks covered by the ALJ's order."

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