A citizen who loses government benefits because of bad advice from a government official cannot sue the government to get the money back, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The 7-2 decision was issued in the case of a retired Navy welder from San Diego who was told--orally and in writing--that he could earn extra money for one year and keep his disability pension.
The advice was wrong. Congress had changed the law and earning the extra money made the welder ineligible for the disability pay for a time.
On Monday, the justices ruled that the government acted correctly in cutting off his benefits.
The ruling appears to insulate the government from any liability for bad advice given by Social Security officials or agents of the Internal Revenue Service.
Writing for the high court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in a 19-page opinion seemed to indicate that it is more important to uphold the law than to do justice in an individual case. The Constitution says that money may not be spent except by law, and the welder in this case was not eligible under law for the continued benefits, the court reasoned.
In the past, it has been difficult to win suits if a low-level official misleads a taxpayer or a Social Security recipient. Now, it will be nearly impossible to win such a case, lawyers said.
“We thought this was an egregious case,” said Neal S. Dudovitz, a lawyer for the National Senior Citizens Law Center in Los Angeles. “He didn’t just rely on advice over the phone. He was told in writing that this was the law.”
Charles Richmond, a Vietnam veteran, was a civilian welder for the Navy in San Diego when he developed job-related vision problems and was forced to retire in 1981. Because his vision prevented him from welding, he was eligible for a disability pension.
Under the law in 1981, he could earn up to 80% of his former annual Navy wages for two years in a row and still keep his disability pay. But Congress tightened the law in 1982 to cut off disability benefits if a recipient earned more than 80% of his old pay in any year.
Richmond drove a school bus part time and earned about $13,000. When he saw a chance to do extra work, he inquired of Navy personnel officials whether earning more would affect his disability pension. No, he was assured, so long as he did not earn more than 80% of his old pay for two years in a row.
But when Richmond earned $19,936 in 1986, which was $920 over the 80% limit, he received a letter from the government telling him that his disability pay had been cut off.
“He was outraged,” said Ron Sievers, a Long Beach attorney who worked on the case.
After a series of reversals before government appeal boards, a federal appeals court in Washington ruled for Richmond in 1988. It said that the Navy had so grossly mistreated Richmond that it should be required to repay him the $3,993 in benefits he lost.
But the Justice Department appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the ruling in his favor could open the door to thousands of claimants who lost money because of bad advice by government officials.
Kenneth Starr, U.S. solicitor general, told the justices in the February argument that the Navy’s advice was “very unfortunate for Mr. Richmond,” but the dispute nonetheless involved “a run-of-the-mill error” by federal employees. The U.S. Treasury should not be forced to pay for such errors, he argued.
The justices agreed Monday. “To open the door to (such) claims would only invite endless litigation over both real and imagined claims by disgruntled citizens, imposing an unpredictable drain on the public (treasury),” Kennedy wrote in the case (Office of Personnel Management vs. Richmond, 88-1943).
“Even if most claims were rejected in the end, the burden of defending such claims would itself be substantial,” Kennedy added.
His opinion noted, however, that Richmond could go to Congress and asked that the law be changed to rectify the mistake. Lawyers for Richmond said he did not want to comment on the ruling Monday.
Dissenting were Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan Jr., who said that the government “should bear the burden of the government’s error.”
In another action, the high court let stand a ruling that barred the city of Burlington, Vt., from placing a Jewish religious symbol in a park in front of city hall during the Christmas season. The court, without comment, refused to hear the case (City of Burlington vs. Mark A. Kaplan, 89-1625) brought by the city seeking review of a ruling by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case stems from permits the city issued to a Jewish group to place a 16-foot-high menorah, a nine-pronged candelabra associated with Hanukkah, in City Hall Park for a week in December in 1987 and 1988.
The Supreme Court in recent years has banned such practices.