LOCATION: Camp Newfound Owatonna
DOCKET NO.: 96-272
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 521 US 121 (1997)
ARGUED: Mar 17, 1997
DECIDED: Jun 19, 1997
Malcolm L. Stewart - for federal respondent
Malcolm L. Stewart -
Robert E. Babcock - for petitioner
Thomas J. Pierry, III - for private respondent
Facts of the case
John Rambo received a disability award under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) for an injury he sustained while working for the Metropolitan Stevedore Company as a longshore frontman. Afterwards, Rambo acquired new skills and obtained longshore work as a crane operator, earning more than three times his preinjury earnings, though his disabled physical condition remained unchanged. Metropolitan then filed to modify Rambo's disability award under the LHWCA. An Administrative Law judge terminated Rambo's benefits because of his increased earnings. The Benefits Review Board affirmed. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that the LHWCA only authorizes disability award modifications if there has been a change in an employee's physical condition. Later the appellate court reversed another order discontinuing compensation.
Does the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act bar nominal compensation to a worker who is presently able to earn at least as much as before he was injured?
Media for Metropolitan Stevedore Company v. RamboAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 17, 1997 in Metropolitan Stevedore Company v. Rambo
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 19, 1997 in Metropolitan Stevedore Company v. Rambo
The opinion of the Court in No. 96-272, Metropolitan Stevedore Company versus Rambo will be announced by Justice Souter.
This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The question is whether the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act permits nominal compensation to an injured worker when his ability to earn does not immediately decline but may decline in the future.
The issue has practical import because a worker who gets nominal compensation, unlike one who gets nothing, may lay who seek more substantial compensation if and when a decline in his wage earning capacity actually materializes.
The respondent, John Rambo, was injured in 1980 while doing long shore work for the petitioner, Metropolitan Stevedore Company.
The party stipulated that Rambo had suffered twenty-two-and-a-half percent permanent partial disability and an order was entered awarding compensation based on that stipulation.
Nine years later, Metropolitan sought to have that award modified.
Based on evidence that Rambo had acquired new skills and was now able to earn three times as much as before his injury, an Administrative Law Judge entered an order completely ending Rambo's disability compensation and the Benefits Review Board affirmed.
The Ninth Circuit reversed, however, on the ground that Rambo should have been awarded nominal compensation reflecting the possible future effects of his injury.
In an opinion filed with the Clerk of Court today, we hold that an injured employee should be awarded nominal compensation when his current ability to earn wages is at least as great as before his injury, but there is a significant possibility that his wage earning capacity will fall in the future.
The Longshore Act compensates for disability and an injured worker is at least nominally disabled if his future ability to earn may decline as a result of his injury.
We based this conclusion on provisions of the Act requiring a worker to bring his claim for compensation within a year of being injured and requiring the fact finder to account for the future effects of any disability when deciding whether and to what extent the worker is disabled.
Awarding nominal compensation subject to modification in the future, if a decline in earning capacity materializes, is consistent with the Longshore Act's general wait-and-see approach the future developments which promotes accuracy and does fairness to employers and employees alike.
In this case, however, the Ninth Circuit erred in deciding for itself that Rambo is entitled to nominal compensation.
Whether he is, depends on whether there is a significant possibility of a future decline in his earning capacity, a question of fact that must be resolved by an administrative law judge.
We therefore remand the case for that purpose.
Justice O'Connor has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas have joined.