Barnhart v. Thomas (02-763)

November 12, 2003 Supreme Court Update

Greetings Court fans!

As predicted, the Court issued its first opinion of the Term today, a unanimous decision, authored by Scalia, in Barnhart v. Thomas (02-763). This is a bad day for the O'Connor clerks. She likes to issue the first opinion, and I can assure you that she is not happy that she lost the opinion race, especially since she lost the race to Scalia! (For the record, when I worked for her, she issued the first opinion of the Term.) The only mitigating fact for her clerks is that Scalia had to write a social security opinion.

Before I get to the opinion, let me suggest three reasons why you should care about this social security case. First, its the first opinion of the Term, so you can feel good about paying attention to the Court's business at the beginning of the Term. Second, even though the opinion is heavy on social security regulations, it could be useful for statutory construction issues or (for you government lawyers out there), as a new Chevron cite. Third, in the guise of a hypothetical, Scalia -- father of 9 -- offers some parenting advice. (As a new parent myself, I'm always on the look out for parenting advice!) If these reasons aren't compelling to you, then you can stop reading now, and wait for the next update. Otherwise, continue on.

Under the Social Security Act, Pauline Thomas, a former elevator operator, is eligible for disability benefits if her impairment is so severe that she is "not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot . . . engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." The central question of this case is whether that last limiting phrase ("which exists in the national economy") applies to the first part of the definition ("previous work") or just to the last part ("any other kind of substantial gainful work"). The Social Security Administration has interpreted the language as only applying to the last part of the definition, and today, Scalia upheld the SSA's interpretation as a reasonable interpretation of the text, and specifically as a proper application of the grammatical "rule of the last antecedent" under which a limiting clause ordinarily only modifies the noun or phrase it immediately follows. To demonstrate, Scalia offers the following example: Parents leave a teenage son alone in the house for the weekend with the warning that he will be punished if he throws a party or engages in any other activity that damages the house. As Scalia explains, the son is in trouble if he throws a party, even if that party does not damage the house. Thus, "which exists in the national economy" is reasonably read as modifying only the last part of the disability definition. Moreover, the fact that this interpretation might not produce the best or most accurate results in all cases is irrelevant. All rules are imperfect. Because the SSA's interpretation is reasonable, it is upheld.

That's all for now. As always, I welcome any comments, questions, or corrections. Thanks for reading.


From the Appellate Practice Group at Wiggin & Dana.
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