Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Company

PETITIONER: Estate of Cowart
RESPONDENT: Nicklas Drilling Co. et al.
LOCATION: Residence of Jacobson

DOCKET NO.: 91-17
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 505 US 469 (1992)
ARGUED: Mar 25, 1992
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1992

ADVOCATES:
H. Lee Lewis, Jr. - on behalf of the private Respondent
Lloyd N. Frischhertz - on behalf of the Petitioner
Michael R. Dreeben - on behalf of the Federal Respondent

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 25, 1992 in Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Company

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 22, 1992 in Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Company

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The second case that I have to announce for the Court is the opinion in Estate of Floyd Cowart versus Nicklas Drilling Company, No. 91-17.

The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act is a federal statute.

It creates a comprehensive scheme to compensate workers injured or killed while employed on the navigable waters of the United States.

This case raises questions regarding a provision of the Act governing settlements by injured workers of lawsuits that they file against third parties who may have been responsible for the workers' injury.

The Act allows injured workers to pursue actions against third parties without sacrificing compensation.

The Act provides for an offset against the employer's liability of the amount received from a third party.

One provision of the Act, Section 33(g), places limits on the right of the worker to settle third party lawsuits.

The statute states that if a person is one who is entitled to compensation and if he enters into a third party settlement for an amount less than his entitlement under the Act, he must obtain the written consent of the employer to the settlement before the settlement is entered.

Failure to do so results in termination of benefits under the Act.

It is uncontested that the petitioner in this case did not secure his employer's written consent.

The question before us is whether he was a person entitled to compensation and so, subject to the written consent provision.

He argues that because he was neither receiving benefits nor had an adjudication resolved in his favor at the time of the settlement, he does not fall within the terms of the statute.

We granted certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit after the en banc Court held that the petitioner was a person entitled to compensation and had forfeited his right to benefits thereby, reversing a longstanding interpretation of the Benefits Review Board.

We hold today that the written consent requirement of Section 33(g) applies regardless of whether an injured worker is receiving compensation or has adjudicated to be so entitled.

This is a case of statutory interpretation and our analysis is dictated by the plain language of the statute.

The employer supported by the Director of the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, the government agency which administers the Act, argues to us that the natural meaning of person entitled of compensation encompasses persons like petitioners who have been injured and are eligible for benefits under the Act.

We find great force in that argument.

In normal English usage to be entitled to something used to qualify or have a right to it.

It does not require that the right be acknowledged or adjudicated.

Under that natural meaning, petitioner was a person entitled to compensation.

Our conclusion is about just by other provisions of the Longshore Act using the phrase person entitled to compensation, many of which would make no sense if the phrase meant what the petitioner contends.

Petitioner's most powerful argument test is that we should adapt his view because since 1977 the Benefits Review Board has read the language as he does, and in 1984, Congress reenacted the statute without changing the critical language.

We disagree.

First, as the petitioner concedes, we owe no deference to the views of the Board.

It is the office of workman's compensation programs that is the agency charged with administering the statute, and that agency now argues in favor of the employer.

Second, the petitioner's argument is based on a false premise.

When Congress reenacted the Longshore Act in 1984, it added new provisions and new language which we think leave little doubt that Congress did not intend to adapt the Board's view of the statute and if any thing, it meant to reverse it.

In any event, administrative interpretation followed by congressional reenactment cannot overcome the plain language of the statute.

We are concerned that our decision today will have a harsh effect on injured workers and their families when they loose their benefits for failure to comply with Section 33(g), a result which may have been exacerbated by the uncertain course followed by the federal agency's charge with administering the Act.

However, Congress has spoken with great clarity to the precise issue raised in this case and it is the duty of the courts to enforce the judgment of the legislature.