The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the second of several ERISA disputes this term, the first issue we discussed as the term began, October 5, 2020.  Monday, November 2, 2020, the Justices will consider whether the Railroad Retirement Board’s denial of a claimant’s request to open a prior benefits decision is a “final decision” reviewable by the courts in Salinas v. U.S. R.R. Ret. Bd. (No. 19-999).

The issue before the Court is a straightforward question of statutory interpretation. Section 355(f) of the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA) provides that any claimant, certain railway labor organizations, certain of the claimant’s employers, “or any other party aggrieved by a final decision under [§ 355(c)]” may obtain a court review of “any final decision of the Board” if they follow the prescribed claims procedures.

The Board construes the provision as limiting court review to the types of final decisions listed in § 355(c) of the RUIA. In support of its position, it argues that the term “other” in the phrase “any other party aggrieved by a final decision under [§ 355(c)]” indicates the other categories in the list of individuals or entities that can seek review also must have been “aggrieved by a final decision under [§ 355(c)].” Since § 355(c) does not encompass decisions regarding reopening claims, there is no right to appeal such a decision. This construction is appropriate, the Board said, because reopening of claims is a matter of “agency grace,” not a statutory requirement.

The petitioners disagree, contending the phrase “any final decision” in § 355(f) means just that – every decision is a claimant’s “last stop” at the administrative level, including a denial of a request to reopen a claim. They argue that the Board’s limited reading of the statute cuts off claimants’ recourse in the courts prematurely, potentially depriving them of benefits owed to them but mistakenly denied and violating “bedrock principles of agency accountability.”

The issue before the Court is narrow but significant. The Board administers billions of dollars of retirement, disability, sickness, and unemployment benefits each year for hundreds of thousands of claimants under the RUIA and Railroad Retirement Act. A Supreme Court order limiting the availability of judicial review to a discrete list of decisions, as the Board argues is appropriate, would have a profound impact on those claimants.