“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett argued in dissent that federal courts cannot even review claims by railroad workers that the federal railroad retirement board improperly refused to reconsider their disability claims. The 5-4 February 2021 decision, in which Trump justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the majority, was in Salinas v. United States Railroad Retirement Board.
Manfred Salinas worked as a carpenter and assistant foreman for the Union Pacific Railroad for 15 years. He suffered two severe head injuries on the job, which required two spinal fusions and caused him serious “pain, anxiety, and depression.” He sought disability benefits from the US Railroad Retirement Board under federal law, but the Board denied his application several times. He finally received limited benefits on his fourth application, but they were for much less than requested and started years after he became disabled. He filed an administrative appeal, arguing that an earlier application should be reopened because the Board had failed to consider important medical records concerning his disability. The Board denied his appeal and request to reopen, but informed him he could “seek judicial review” of the decision.
Acting on his own, Salinas filed a petition for review with the Fifth Circuit court of appeals. The court held that it had no jurisdiction to consider the petition, pursuant to a previous ruling that it acknowledged reflected a split among the federal appellate courts as to whether such Board decisions could be reviewed by the courts.
The Supreme Court accepted the case for review and in a 5-4 decision by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Kavanaugh, reversed the Fifth Circuit. The majority pointed to a federal statute explicitly stating that Board decisions on retirement and disability “shall be subject to judicial review” to the same extent as decisions of a different board on railroad worker unemployment insurance claims. Federal law provides a person “aggrieved” by a “final decision” of the unemployment insurance board can obtain judicial review, Sotomayor noted, so that a person like Salinas can go to court to review a disability determination as long as it is a “final decision.” The majority ruled that the Board’s decision clearly qualified as a “final decision” on Salinas’ request to reopen the denial of his disability claims, and so sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit to provide him an opportunity to pursue his case.
Trump justices Gorsuch and Barrett, along with Justice Alito, joined a dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas. The dissent argued, as did the Board, that the refusal to reopen a denial of disability claims was not really a “final decision” under federal law. Thomas claimed that the decision was “simply” a “refusal to make a new determination,” as in a 1999 ruling on a different statute, as a matter of “board discretion,” and did not “determine any right or liability” of Salinas or the Board.
The majority explained what was wrong with the dissent’s claims. The 1999 decision, the majority pointed out, concerned the “scope of internal agency review,” as opposed to review by the courts, where there is a “presumption in favor of judicial review.” The refusal to reopen Salinas’ case did provide a final determination as to his rights, the majority went on, and the fact that reopening is “discretionary” does not allow the Board to “avoid the plain text” of the federal statute providing for judicial review. Even with respect to discretionary decisions, the majority wrote, judicial review plays a “modest but important” role in “guarding against decisions that are arbitrary, inconsistent with the standards set by the Board’s own regulations, or otherwise contrary to law.”
As a result of the majority’s ruling, Manfred Salinas will have the opportunity to demonstrate to a court that the Board’s decision to refuse to reopen denial of railroad workers’ disability claims was improper. If it had been up to Trump justices Gorsuch and Barrett, however, he and other railroad workers would not even have that chance.