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Thursday, September 26, 2002
No. 01-705 Barnhart v. Peabody Coal Co.


Simplifying this case as much as possible, and perhaps doing slight damage to the facts: Back in the day, coal companies promised their workers lifetime retirement benefits under various collective bargaining agreements. As some of these companies began going out of business, the retirees' benefits were in danger, so Congress passed a law that would sort it all out. Under the law, the Social Security Administration (SSA) was to assign each beneficiary to a particular company or related entity, which would pay the benefits. The law set out criteria designed to ensure that each beneficiary was assigned to the company that was most responsible for that person. SSA was to assign each beneficiary to a company by October 1, 1993.


The parties disagree on whether SSA completed its task. They agree, however, that SSA continued making assignments based on new information for a couple of years beyond the deadline. The question presented in this case is whether those assignments are valid.


It does not seem to me that federal agencies should be able to disregard statutory deadlines set by Congress with impunity; however, in this case, a finding that the assignments were beyond the power of the Comissioner would not result in any penalty to the agency. Instead, it would be the fair allocation of beneficiaries according to Congressional design that would suffer. I believe the court will REVERSE.