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Richardson v. Belcher/Dissent Douglas

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United States Supreme Court

404 U.S. 78

Richardson  v.  Belcher

 Argued: Oct. 13, 1971. --- Decided: Nov 22, 1971

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, dissenting.

I would affirm the judgment of the District Court. The statutory classification upheld today is not 'rationally based and free from invidious discrimination.' Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 487, 90 S.Ct. 1153, 1162, 25 L.Ed.2d 491. It is, in my view, violative of the Federal Government's obligation under the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause to guarantee to all citizens equal protection of the laws. Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 74 S.Ct. 693, 98 L.Ed. 884.

Eligibility for social security disability benefits is premised upon a worker's having attained 'insured' status in the course of an employment 'covered' by the Act. It is undisputed that Raymond Belcher, and through him his wife and two minor children, had so qualified in 1968 when he broke his neck while employed by the Pocahontas Fuel Co. in Lynco, West Virginia. Indeed, his application for such benefits has been approved, and the benefits authorized and paid.

Section 224 of the Social Security Act, however, requires that these benefits be substantially reduced solely because Belcher also receives state workmen's compensation payments. It is said that the duplication of benefits impedes rehabilitation, and may lead to a cutting back of state workmen's compensation programs. Ante, at 83.

The rehabilitation goal does not explain the special treatment given to workmen's compensation beneficiaries. There are many other important programs, both public and private, which contain provisions for disability payments affecting a substantial portion of the work force, and which do not require an offset under the Social Security Act.

Thus, had Belcher's supplemental disability payment come from a Veterans' Administration program, [1] a Civil Service Retirement Act [2] or Railroad Retirement Act [3] annuity, a private disability insurance policy, [4] a self-insurer, [5] a voluntary wage-continuation plan, or the proceeds in an action in tort arising from the disabling injury, there would have been no reduction in his social security benefits. The offset under § 224 applies only to federal social security disability beneficiaries also receiving workmen's compensation payments, a group which in 1965 totaled only 1.4% of all social security disability beneficiaries. [6] Yet, of the 849,000 disabled workers who in 1965 received social security disability benefits, [7] over sixteen percent also received overlapping veteran's benefits, [8] and almost fourteen percent received benefits from private insurance maintained under the auspices of an employer or a union. [9] Congress is, of course, not required to address itself to all aspects of a social problem in its legislation. It must, however, justify the distinctions it draws between people otherwise similarly situated. Rehabilitation incentives are not a rational justification for the discrimination worked by § 224. [10] If it is at all rational to argue that duplicating payments 'impede rehabilitation,' the argument must apply to all such payments regardless of their source. The nature of the supplemental benefit has no relation to a worker's incentive to return to work.

Nor is § 224 designed to stem a possible 'erosion' of state workmen's compensation plans. As Mr. Justice MARSHALL points out, post, at 263, § 224 itself provides that there shall be no reduction of federal social security benefits with respect to those state workmen's compensation plans which themselves offset federal social security benefits against state payments. Thus, the statute encourages States concerned about overcompensation of disabled workers to cut back on their own programs. But the 'rational basis' discerned by the majority requires the statute to have precisely the opposite purpose.

I would affirm the judgment of the District Court.


^1  In fiscal 1970, over 2,000,000 veterans received compensation for service-connected disabilities under statutes administered by the Veterans' Administration. Statistical Abstract of the United States 264 (1971) (hereinafter cited as Statistical Abstract). See generally 38 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. Benefits are also provided to certain veterans for non-service-connected disabilities. See generally 38 U.S.C. § 501 et seq. In 1967, total disability benefits from all Veterans' Administration programs amounted to $3,197,906,000. Berkowitz & Johnson, Towards An Economics of Disability: The Magnitude and Structure of Transfer and Medical Costs, 5 J. Human Resources 271, 282 (1970) (hereinafter cited as Economics of Disability). Raymond Belcher indicated on his application for social security disability benefits that he served for three years during World War II. Transcript of Hearings before Appeals Council 37. The record is silent, however, as to his potential eligibility for non-service-connected veteran's benefits.

^2  Employees covered by the Civil Service Retirement Act, 5 U.S.C. § 8301 et seq., are entitled to a disability annuity after five years of civilian service. Id., § 8337. In fiscal 1970, there were 184,000 disabled annuitants. Statistical Abstract 284.

^3  Title 45 U.S.C. § 228a et seq. provides disability benefits for railroad workers with 10 or more years of covered service. Covered employment under this Act and the Civil Service Retirement Act is excluded from coverage under the Social Security Act. If, however, a worker's employment history separately qualifies him for dual coverage, supplemental payments under neither of these Acts results in an offset of social security disability payments. HEW publication, Social Security Programs in the United States 46, 108 (1968) (hereinafter cited as Programs).

^4  Participation in West Virginia's state workmen's compensation fund is optional with the employer. W.Va.Code Ann. §§ 23-2-1, 23-2-8 (1970). An employer who declines to participate, however, must provide equivalent benefits through private insurance or as a self-insurer. Id., at § 23-2-9. Had the Pocahontas Fuel Co. elected to pay premiums to a private carrier rather than to the state fund-a decision over which Mr. Belcher presumably had no control other than that which might be exerted through the collective-bargaining process-the private insurance benefits would not have been offset under § 224. Over 26,000,000 employees are covered by some sort of private insurance program. Programs 115. In 1967, disability benefits from private insurance amounted to 1.3 billion dollars. Economics of Disability 278. This figure alone exceeded the total of all benefits paid by workmen's compensation programs for that year. Ibid.

^5  Were Mr. Belcher's employer large enough, it might have determined to become a self-insurer with respect to employee disability claims. Disability payments from self-insurers were required by state law to be at least equivalent to benefits available through the state fund, n. 3, supra, and they would also not be offset under § 224.

In 1969, employers who were covered by private carriers and who were self-insurers paid a combined total of $2,008,000,000 in benefits. State and federal workmen's compensation funds paid only $604,000,000 in benefits. Statistical Abstract 289.

^6  1966 Survey of Disabled Adults, Office of Research & Statistics, Social Security Administration, Table 5 (hereinafter cited as Survey). This figure was confirmed during the hearings which led to the adoption of § 224 by Anthony J. Celebrezze, then Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Hearings on H.R. 6675, before the Senate Committee on Finance, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 1, p. 152.

^7  Survey, Table 5.

^8  Ibid.

^9  Ibid.

^10  Assuming the rationality of rehabilitation as a goal with respect to temporary disabilities, there is still no justification for applying an offset with respect to disabilities concededly permanent in nature. Nevertheless, the statute requires this to be done. The record does not reveal the status of Mr. Belcher's disability.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).