on Jan 14, 2022
at 2:18 pm
Thursday’s decision in Babcock v. Kijakazi resolved a technical question about the Social Security benefits available to a small group of National Guard workers: pre-1984 dual-status military technicians. By an 8-1 vote, the court approved the government’s decision to exclude those workers from a statutory benefit limited to members of the “uniformed services.”
The case involved details of the formula that the Social Security statutes use to calculate monthly benefits. That formula has a special rule that limits Social Security benefits for people with irregular work histories over the course of their lifetime in cases in which they are likely to be receiving pensions for work outside the Social Security system (often work for government or military employers). That limiting rule has an exception, so that the limitation does not apply to payments that are “based wholly on service as a member of a uniformed service.”
The question in Babcock was whether “dual-status military technicians” hired before 1984 did their work “wholly … as a member of a uniformed service,” and Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s succinct opinion holds that they did not. She explains that the employees have a dual status because the relevant statutes describe them as “civilian employee[s]” in the work that they do – principally related to training and managing the National Guard supply chain – but require all who hold the position to “maintain membership” in the National Guard, which is one of the “uniformed service[s]” to which the protection applies. She goes to explain that the technicians during the relevant years received a civil-service pension from the Office of Personnel Management for their work as technicians, but also a military pension from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service for their work in National Guard duties. The case involved only the civil-service pension; all agree that the limitation protects the military pension.
Barrett’s opinion presents the result as compelled by the statutory description of the protection, which limits it to payments “based wholly on service as a member of a uniformed service” (my emphasis). She refers to dictionaries describing the use of “as” to be read “most naturally … to mean ‘in the role, capacity, or function of.’” Because the status of these technicians “is that of a civilian, not a member of the National Guard,” their work as technicians (as distinct from their work in National Guard duties) is not work in their capacity “as” members of the National Guard.
The strongest argument for David Babcock, who worked as a dual-status technician from 1975 to 2009 and challenged the government’s reduction to his Social Security benefits, is the requirement that he be a member of the National Guard at all times while he was employed as one of these technicians; indeed, these technicians even wear military uniforms at work. But Barrett finds that argument futile, commenting that “[a] condition of employment is not the same as the capacity in which one serves.” Summarizing, she concludes that “[d]etermining whether Babcock’s technician employment was service ‘as’ a member of the National Guard does not turn on factors like whether he wore his uniform to work. It turns on how Congress classified his job — and … Congress classified dual-status technicians as civilians.” She acknowledges that the congressional classification might seem at first to be a “bookkeeping” technicality, but says that “bookkeeping matters when it comes to pay and benefits.”
Neither the opinion nor the result will surprise anybody familiar with the argument. My article summarizing the argument described a bench mostly unsympathetic with Babcock, with the sole exception of Justice Neil Gorsuch. His brief dissent is all that kept Barrett’s opinion from unanimity.