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Supreme Court rules on disability compensation for longshore and harbor workers

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 8-1 [opinion, PDF] Tuesday in Roberts v. Sea-Land Services [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) [text], an employee is "newly awarded compensation" for the purposes of the act when he first becomes disabled and entitled to the disability benefits, regardless of when the compensation order was issued. The calculation for compensation is based on several factors, including the national average wage. Petitioner Dana Roberts was disabled for a period between 2002 and 2005, but his claim was not adjudicated until 2007. Roberts argued that the national average wage when his claim was first adjudicated in 2007 should be used, as opposed to the national average wage from 2002 when he was injured, because he was not "awarded compensation in a formal order" until 2007. In an opinion authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court held that in order to support an administrable rule "that will result in equal treatment of similarly situated beneficiaries and avoids gamesman ship in the claims process," an employee must be "'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." The court further concluded that:

[A]pplying the national average weekly wage for the fiscal year in which an employee becomes disabled advances the LHWCA's purpose to compensate disability, defined as "incapacity because of injury to earn the wages which the employee was receiving at the time of injury." Just as the LHWCA takes "the average weekly wage of the injured employee at the time of the injury" as the "basis upon which to compute compensation" it is logical to apply the national average weekly wage for the same point in time.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a separate opinion in the case, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

The court's ruling affirmed the decision [text, PDF] of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which ruled that Roberts misinterpreted the phrase "those newly awarded compensation during such period" and held that his compensation should be calculated based on the 2002 national average. The oral arguments [JURIST report] focused on the ambiguity of the word "award," which counsel for the petitioner maintained was the compensation resulting from an administrative compensation order. The state argued that it would not make sense to compensate an employee who has not received an administrative order differently that one who has.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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