January 21, 2022

Judges limit social security benefits for technicians with “dual status” in the National Guard

OPINION ANALYSIS

Thursday decision in Babcock v. Kijakazi resolved a technical question about the Social Security benefits available to a small group of National Guard employees: military technicians with two statuses from before 1984. By an 8-to-1 vote, the court approved the government’s decision to expel those employees from a statutory benefit limited to members of the ‘uniformed services’.

The case involved details of the formula Social Security statutes use to calculate monthly benefits. That formula has a special rule that limits Social Security benefits for people with irregular employment history over the course of their lives in cases where they are likely to receive a pension for work outside the Social Security system (often working for government or military employers). There is an exception to that restrictive rule, so that the restriction does not apply to payments that are “wholly based on service as a member of a uniformed service”.

into the question babcock was whether “dual-status military technicians” hired before 1984 were doing their jobs “entirely…as members of a uniformed service,” and Judge Amy Comey Barrett’s succinct opinion holds that they did not. She explains that the employees have dual status as they are described in the relevant statutes as “civil worker”.[s]in the work they do — primarily related to training and managing the National Guard’s supply chain — but require anyone holding the position to “retain membership” in the National Guard, one of the “uniformed service[s]to which the protection applies. She explains that in the relevant years, the technicians received a civil servant pension from the Bureau of Personnel Management for their work as technicians, as well as a military pension from the Defense Finance and Accounting Department for their work in the National Guard. It only concerned the civil servant’s pension; they all agree that the restriction protects the military pension.

Barrett’s view presents the result as compelled by the legal description of protection, which limits it to payments “wholly based on service if a member of a uniformed service’ (emphasis added). She refers to dictionaries describing the use of ‘if’, which ‘must be read most naturally’ as meaning ‘in the role, quality 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 opposed to their work in the National Guard) 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 cut in his Social Security benefits, is the requirement that he must be a member of the National Guard at all times while serving as one of these technicians; indeed, these technicians even wear military uniforms at work. But Barrett finds that argument meaningless, noting that “[a] condition of employment is not the same as the capacity in which a person serves.” In summary, she concludes that “[d]determining whether Babcock’s technician employment was ‘as’ a member of the National Guard is irrelevant to factors such as whether he wore his uniform to work. It’s about how Congress classified his job — and… Congress classified technicians with two statuses as citizens.” She acknowledges that Congress’ classification may seem like a technical aspect of “accounting” at first, but says that ” accounting matters when it comes to pay and benefits’.

Neither the opinion nor the result will surprise anyone familiar with the argument. Mine article summarizing the argument described a bank that was mostly unsympathetic to Babcock, the only exception being Judge Neil Gorsuch. His brief dissent is all that kept Barrett’s opinion from unanimity.

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