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Cvikich v. Railroad Retirement Board

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT


filed as amended. : October 31, 1988.

MILAN CVIKICH, PETITIONER
v.
RAILROAD RETIREMENT BOARD, RESPONDENT

Appeal from the Railroad Retirement Board, RRB Docket No. A-140-26-6020.

Mansmann, Hutchinson and Hunter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hutchinson

Opinion OF THE COURT

HUTCHINSON, Circuit Judge.

Pro se petitioner Milan Cvikich (Cvikich) seeks to overturn a decision of respondent Railroad Retirement Board (Board). The Board had affirmed an Appeals Referee's order. The referee had in turn denied Cvikich's appeal from an administrative ruling rejecting his request for recalculation to increase his Railroad Retirement annuity. The Board had certified the annuity award as of November 1, 1974.

Cvikich's annuity falls under the disability provisions of the Railroad Retirement Act (RRA), codified at 45 U.S.C.A. §§ 231 et seq.*fn1 The amount of Cvikich's annuity has become less than he would currently receive if he were eligible for disability benefits under the Social Security Act (SSA) 45 U.S.C.A. § 402(d) (West Supp. 1987). He bases his claim for recalculation on the birth of a child in 1978, after the 1975 decision awarding him an annuity retroactive to November 1, 1974, and a longstanding proviso to RRA, referred to as the "special guaranty clause." That clause is intended to prevent certain RRA annuitants from receiving less than they would if they were eligible for similar benefits under SSA.

The "special guaranty's" poor draftsmanship, coupled with the RRA's confusing regulations and explanatory publications, easily could lead a worker and his family to believe that all RRA annuitants will always receive benefits at least equal to those provided by SSA. The text of the proviso, however, allows an upward recalculation of a finally determined RRA annuity for certain after-married spouses, but for no after-born children. Railroad retirees may find it difficult to understand the logic or equity of providing for after-married spouses, but not for after-born children. Nevertheless, since the statute so provides, the remedy lies with Congress. We must follow it and affirm the Board's decision.

The Board had jurisdiction pursuant to 45 U.S.C.A. §§ 355(b)-(e) (West 1986), after the Appeals Referee waived formality and timeliness on the claimant's administrative appeal. This Court has jurisdiction to review the Board's decision pursuant to 45 U.S.C.A. § 231g, incorporating 45 U.S.C.A. § 355(f) (West 1986). Since the question before us is one of statutory construction, our scope of review is plenary.

II.

Cvikich was born on August 9, 1934. He worked for railroads from May 24, 1955, until May 7, 1974, when he became disabled with schizo-affective schizophrenia. He was awarded an employee annuity in 1975. It became final, retroactive to November 1, 1974, upon expiration of the statutory waiting period. See 45 U.S.C.A. § 231b(a)(2) (West Supp. 1987).

When Cvikich applied for his annuity he had been separated from his wife, Mary M. Christy Cvikich, for more than eight years, and their only child, Mary Catherine Cvikich, was 20 years old. On July 31, 1978, he became the father of Milan Christopher Cvikich Heggan (Milan). Milan's mother is Gloria Jean Heggan (Heggan). Heggan and Cvikich were not married.

Milan lived with Heggan until May 1982, when he went to live with Cvikich. Cvikich then made informal applications for an increased annuity, but was told that his son could not be considered since Milan had not yet been born in 1974 and Cvikich had not yet reached age 62 at the time of his informal application. In December 1982, Milan returned to Heggan. In February 1985, Cvikich again informally requested an increased annuity because of Milan. The Board informed him on April 26, 1985, that he was not eligible. He wrote back in July 1985 stating an intent to appeal. The Board did not inform him until January 31, 1986, that he could not appeal because he had made no formal request. Cvikich filed a formal appeal on April 1, 1986.

Despite the lack of a formal denial or reconsideration, an Appeals Referee elected to hear the appeal because "[r]equiring the appellant to file a claim in order to be denied at this point would exalt form over substance." She found that under the RRA, new, nondisabled children could not cause a recalculation of an annuity until the annuitant reached retirement age. She therefore denied Cvikich increased benefits. The Board affirmed the Referee's decision on April 6, 1987.

Cvikich timely filed a petition for review on September 15, 1987, within one year of the date the Board notified him of its affirmance. See 45 U.S.C.A. § 231g (West 1986). The petition for review was initially submitted for decision April 6, 1988, pursuant to Third Circuit Rule 12(b). It was held for further consideration until June 29, 1988, when it was assigned for opinion.

III.

Under the Social Security Act, Milan could receive a child's benefit if Cvikich were insured under the Act. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 402(d) (West Supp. 1987); id. § 416(e) (West 1983); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350, 404.353, 404.355(c)(1987). Since 1937, the RRA has contained a "special" or "minimum" provision sometimes described generally as a guaranty that an annuitant's family will not receive less under the RRA than it would if it were instead covered by the SSA. The RRA currently provides:

If for any month in which an annuity accrues and is payable under this subchapter the annuity to which an individual is entitled under this subchapter (or would have been entitled except for a reduction pursuant to a joint and survivor election), together with the annuity, if any, of the spouse and divorced wife of such individual, is less than the total amount, or the additional amount, which would have been payable to all persons for such month under the Social Security Act [42 U.S.C.A. § 301 et seq.] if such individual's service as an employee after December 31, 1936, were included in the term "employment" as defined in that Act, the annuities of the individual and spouse shall be increased proportionately to such total amount, or such additional amount: . . . .

45 U.S.C.A. § 231b(f)(3) (West 1986).*fn2

This general language of 231b(f)(3) is limited by two provisos. Relying on them the Board refused to calculate whether Cvikich's new benefit level under the SSA would be higher than his current RRA annuity of $635.44 per month. It held that under these further provisions of 45 U.S.C.A. § 231b(f)(3), it could not consider after-born children once an annuity has been certified. The current version of the provisions the Board relies on reads:

For purposes of [§ 231b(f)(3)], (i) persons not entitled to an annuity under section 231a of this title shall not be included in the computation under this subdivision except a spouse who could qualify for an annuity under section 231a(c) of this title if the individual from whom the spouse's annuity under this subchapter would derive had attained age 60 or 62, as the case may be, and such individual's children who meet the definition as such contained in [42 U.S.C. § 416(e)]; (ii) after an annuity has been certified for payment and this subdivision was inapplicable after allowing for any waiting period under [42 U.S.C. § 423(c)(2)], and after having considered the inclusion of all persons who were then eligible for inclusion in the computation under this subdivision or was then applicable but later became inapplicable, any recertification in such annuity under this subdivision shall not take into account persons not entitled to an annuity under section 231a of this title to an annuity under section 231a of this title except a spouse who could qualify for an annuity under section 231a(c) of this title when she attains age 60 or 62, as the case may be, if the individual from whom the spouse's annuity would derive had attained age 60 or 62, at the case may be, and who was married to such individual at the time he applied for his annuity; and (iii) in computing the amount to be paid under this subdivision the only benefits under [42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq.] which shall be considered shall be those to which the individuals included in the computation are entitled.

45 U.S.C.A. § 231b(f)(3) (West 1986).*fn3

Under proviso (i) Milan is not a person entitled to an annuity under § 231a because he is neither a railroad worker, §§ 231a(a)(1) and 231a(b), a spouse of a worker, § 231a(c)(1), nor a worker's survivor, § 231a(d)(1). It is true that Milan is a worker's "child" as defined in 42 U.S.C. § 416(e) and so would qualify in an initial benefit calculation under the first proviso. However, proviso (ii), not proviso (i) applies to recertifications, i.e., recalculations. Garbled as proviso (ii) is, its language speaks of recalculation only for a spouse eligible for derivative annuities under § 231a(c). It makes no mention of a "child" such as Milan.

The Board asserted that the meaning hidden in this inartfully worked statute is "unambiguous" in placing "limitations on testing for the applicability of the so-called special guaranty provision." When initially calculating an annuity, proviso (i) says that the Board should compare family benefits under the SSA and RRA, and should certify the higher amount. § 231b(f)(3). For purposes of that initial calculation "family" includes "spouses," "children" (as defined in the SSA), and other persons who already qualify for a regular RRA annuity in their own names. § 231b(f)(3)(i). The Board thus concedes that Milan might have entitled Cvikich to a higher benefit under the special guaranty "if he had been born prior to [the original] certification of the annuity" in 1975.

However, the Board reads § 231b(f)(3)(ii) as an equally unambiguous command to further limit the definition of "family" in later calculation under the special guaranty clause. After an annuity is certified, the Board asserts, "family" includes only persons who already qualify for a regular RRA annuity in their own names, and the "spouse," if any, to whom the employee was married when the original annuity application was filed.

The Board has not issued regulations implementing its "limitations on testing" for recalculation. The only applicable regulation does not mention any "limitation on testing" and would appear to mandate application of the "special guaranty" regardless of when Milan was born:

Over-all minimum based on Social Security Act formula.

(a) When . . . the amount of annuity payable to such individual for an entire month plus the amount, if any, of the spouse's annuity payable for such month to the spouse of such individual, is less than 110 percent of the amount, or 110 percent of the additional amount, which would have been payable for such month under the Social Security Act to the individual, his spouse, and his children, if any, the amount of the annuity of annuities shall be increased proportionately to 110 percent of such amount or 110 percent of such additional amount.

20 C.F.R. § 225.6(a) (1987) (emphasis supplied).*fn4 Moreover, applicants are also administratively informed of the special guaranty without mention of any "limitation on testing."*fn5

We have been unable to find any reported decision construing § 231b(f)(3)(ii). The Board relies on the statute itself and on a marginally relevant 1965 opinion holding, under an earlier version of the statute, that Congress could constitutionally enact a special guaranty that raises annuities for workers not independently entitled to Social Security benefits. Kolonits v. Railroad Retirement Board, 346 F.2d 367, 368 (7th Cir. 1965).*fn6

IV.

A.

We cannot determine whether the Board has consistently applied the language in 45 U.S.C.A. § 231b(f)(3)(ii) to bar certain recalculations based on the special minimum guaranty (§ 231b(f)(3)) when an annuitant's family increases in size, as well as when Social Security benefits are generally increased. The Railroad Retirement Board's Philadelphia office distributes several informational booklets and pamphlets to current annuitants and prospective annuitants.*fn7 Only the longest of these documents, Form IB-2, contains any mention of the special minimum guaranty; it does not note any "limitation on testing" of the type asserted by the Board in this case. The relevant portion provides in full:

Minimum Guaranty for Employee and Spouse Annuities

Under a special minimum guaranty provision, railroad families will not receive less in monthly benefits than they would have if railroad earnings were covered by social security rather than railroad retirement laws. This guaranty is intended to cover situations in which one or more members of a family would otherwise be eligible for a type of social security benefit which is not provided under the Railroad Retirement Act.

For example, social security provides children's benefits when an employee is disabled, retired, or deceased. The Railroad Retirement Act only provides children's benefits if the employee is deceased. Therefore, if a retired rail employee has children who would otherwise be eligible for a benefit under social security, the employee's annuity would be increased to reflect what social security would pay the family, unless the annuity is already more than that amount.

Railroad Retirement Board Form IB-2, "Railroad Retirement and Survivor Benefits for Railroad Workers and Their Families" (March 1987), at 14-15.

The Board's language is unconditional, although a general disclaimer at the end of the pamphlet warns of possible exceptions.*fn8 The Board has failed to give potential annuitants clear guidance on the statutory limitations of the so-called "special guaranty" provision. That failure may give Mr. Cvikich, and others as well, an impression of arbitrary bureaucratic action.

B.

"[T]he court, as well as [an administrative] agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress ." Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-843, 81 L. Ed. 2d 694, 104 S. Ct. 2778 (1984), quoted in Grocery Town Market, Inc. v. United States, 848 F.2d 392, 394 (3d Cir.1988). The tortured wording of the proviso to § 231b(f)(3), the ambiguous administrative explanations, and the lack of either implementing regulations or authoritative construction of the current provision leads us to consider legislative history to determine whether there is any "clear intent of Congress" to apply in this case. If so, that intent controls. If not, "the question for the court is whether the agency's answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute." Chevron, 467 U.S. at 843, quoted in Grocery Town Market, 848 F.2d at 394.

C.

The limitations on the special guaranty of § 231b(f)(3) were all added by Pub. L. No. 92-460, § 1(d), 86 Stat. 765, 765-766 (1972). They were presented, on the Board's suggestion, as "technical amendments to the Railroad Retirement Act of 1937 to simplify the computation of benefits in so far as the consideration of Social Security Act provisions is concerned." Senate Report No. 92-1127 (Sept. 14, 1972), reprinted in 1972 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 3469, 3470. The history evidences no concern with applications for increased annuities based on the addition of new family members. The committee which added the amendment said it was concerned with the automatic recalculations which the Board was forced to perform for all annuitants each time the SSA was amended. The Senate Report states:

In cases being paid as regular annuities, problems arise when social security benefits are increased. In such cases, the Board is required to ascertain whether the social security increase would result in a transfer of the annuity from the regular formula to the special one. To do this, the Board must determine if the annuitant has qualified dependents (such as minor, disabled or student children) who are not entitled to benefits under the Railroad Retirement Act while the annuitant is alive but who could be included in the computation of the special annuity. This requires the Board to send out questionnaires to get information about the annuitant's family composition at the time of each amendment to the Social Security Act. It is estimated that out of about 300,000 such questionnaires which would have to be sent out to regular annuitants, only a small number (less than 2,000) would have such dependents. To relieve the Board of the necessity of sending out questionnaires, the new clause [now (ii)] . . . authorizes the Board to include only members of the family on the Board's benefit rolls, or those included in the special annuity at the time of such social security increase, for the purpose of determining eligibility for, and the amount of, a special annuity because of the increase. This new provision would be used only in cases where the special annuity could have applied but it had previously been determined that the regular annuity produced a higher benefit.

1972 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News at 3478 (emphasis supplied).*fn9

There is little evidence that Congress intended to eliminate the limitations on recalculation when the annuitant filed the application.*fn10 The amendment adding § 231b(f)(3)(ii) (originally § 228c(e)(3)(vii)) was sponsored by the Board itself*fn11 and first passed the House as part of H.R. 15922.*fn12

We will not assume that Congress was unthinking or inaccurate in characterizing the amendment as "technical" and discussing only the administrative burden of recalculating RRA annuities with each amendment to the SSA.

In this case the Board has adopted the only construction which could give meaning to the entire, tortured text of proviso (ii) without adding terms to it (e.g., "for purposes of recalculations based on changes in the Social Security Act," or "when the Board is required to adjust annuities without individual applications therefore") which Congress did not use.

The language of proviso (ii) and the Board's misleading explanations of it as a general guaranty of a minimum RRA benefit comparable to that provided by SSA may well deserve the attention of Congress and the Board. The text of the proviso, however, ungrammatical and poorly drafted as it is, precludes a recalculation of an annuity for the purpose of taking into account the needs of children born to an RRA annuitant after the award of his annuity has become final. That construction is consistent with the RRA's original basis in the actuarial concepts of a pension plan. Social Security, on the other hand, has cast off its actuarial moorings and become a plan by which transfers are made to retirees and their dependents (whether retired for age or disability) out of a tax imposed on the current work force. The amount of those individual transfers is not limited by the actuarial value of the retiree's own contributions to the Social Security trust fund. It may seem anomalous that retirees covered by RRA, who contribute proportionately more to their fund than Social Security beneficiaries, should receives less protection for their dependent children. Congress, however, has so provided. We will therefore affirm the Board.


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