Roberts v. Sea-Land Services

RESPONDENT:Sea-Land Services, Inc., et al.
LOCATION:Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Kentucky

DOCKET NO.: 10-1399
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 566 US (2012)
GRANTED: Sep 27, 2011
ARGUED: Jan 11, 2012
DECIDED: Mar 20, 2012

Joshua T. Gillelan II – for the petitioner
Joseph R. Palmore – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the federal respondent
Peter D. Keisler – for the private respondent

Facts of the case

On February 24, 2002, Dana Roberts slipped on a patch of ice while working as a gatehouse dispatcher for Sea-Land Services Inc. As a result of his fall, Roberts suffered injuries to his shoulder and cervical spine. These injuries ultimately left Roberts permanently partially disabled and ended his longshore career. In accordance with the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, Sea-Land’s insurer paid Roberts compensation for temporary total disability for a period from 2002 to 2005. In May 2005, the insurer disputed Roberts’ claim and stopped compensating him.

On October 12, 2006, an administrative law judge determined that Sea-Land continued to be liable under the Longshore Act for Roberts’ on-the-job injuries after May of 2005. The Longshore Act required an employer to compensate a disabled worker at a rate based on the worker’s average weekly wage at the time of injury. However, the act set an upper limit to compensation based on the average national weekly wage in the fiscal year that an individual was newly awarded compensation. The administrative judge determined that the applicable maximum rate for Roberts was $966.08 per week, based on fiscal year 2002, the year Roberts first became disabled. Roberts claimed that his maximum rate should be $1,114 per week, based on fiscal year 2007, the year the administrative law judge awarded Roberts compensation.

Roberts filed a motion for reconsideration, which the administrative judge denied. Both Sea-Land and Roberts appealed to the Benefits Review Board, which adopted the rationale that the maximum compensation rate was based on the year in which the disability began rather than the year compensation was awarded. Roberts appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the Benefit Review Board’s interpretation. Roberts appealed that decision.


Under the Longshore Act, is the period when an individual is newly awarded compensation the fiscal year when an injured worker first becomes entitled to compensation or the fiscal year when the injured worker is actually awarded compensation?

Media for Roberts v. Sea-Land Services

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 11, 2012 in Roberts v. Sea-Land Services

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 20, 2012 in Roberts v. Sea-Land Services

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We have some opinions this morning, the first in case 10-1399, Roberts Sea-Land Services — Roberts versus Sea-Land Services by Justice Sotomayor.

Sonia Sotomayor:

A federal statute, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, entitles employees who are injured on the navigable waters of the United States to receive disability benefits from their employers.

The amount of benefits depends on both an employee’s preinjury salary and the severity of his disability.

For example, a totally disabled employee is entitled to receive two-thirds of his salary as long as he remains disabled, but the Act also set some maximum rates for benefits.

The maximum rate is twice the national average weekly wage.

That national average weekly wage is a figure calculated by the Secretary of Labor each year based on the average earnings of workers across the country.

The question in this case is which national average weekly wage is used to determine an employee’s maximum rate of compensation.

The Longshore Act says to apply the national average weekly wage for the year in which an employee is “newly awarded compensation.”

So, the precise question before us is, when is an employee newly awarded compensation, when he is disabled by injury or, when he receives a formal compensation order awarding him benefits?

In 2002, petitioner Dana Roberts was injured while working at respondent’s Sea-Land Services Marine Terminal in Alaska.

In 2007, an administrative law judge or ALJ issued a formal compensation order awarding Roberts’ benefits.

Roberts argued that his maximum rate of compensation should be twice the national average weekly wage for 2007, the year of the ALJ’s award.

Instead, the ALJ set a maximum of twice the national average weekly wage for 2002, the year when Roberts became disabled.

The Department of Labor’s Benefits Review Board affirmed the ALJ’s decision, so did the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and so do we.

We hold that employee is newly awarded compensation when he first becomes disabled and thereby becomes statutorily entitled to benefits no matter whether or when he obtains a formal compensation order.

Although Roberts’ interpretation is, at first blush, appealing only ours is consistent with the structure of the Longshore Act and leads to rational results in its administration.

The Act requires employers to pay benefits voluntarily without formal orders and the vast majority of employers do.

For the reasons we explain in our opinion, Roberts’ readings would upset this system and would lead to absurd consequences and we reject it.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is affirmed.

Justice Ginsburg has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.