June 26, 2019
Decided June 26, 2019
Kisor v. Wilkie, No. 18-15
Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that an agency’s reasonable interpretation of its own ambiguous regulations is entitled to deference.
In 1982, the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) denied a Vietnam War veteran’s claim for benefits after concluding that the veteran did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). When the veteran again sought benefits in 2006, the VA changed course, this time awarding benefits after concluding that the veteran did suffer from PTSD. This case arises out of a disagreement as to whether the veteran was also entitled to retroactive payments under a VA regulation permitting such payments when the VA fails to consider “relevant” records—in this case, records describing the veteran’s combat experience. The VA contends that the newly submitted records are not “relevant” because they do not go to the reason for its 1982 denial of benefits, i.e., that the veteran did not have PTSD. Citing both Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410 (1945), and Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997)—which require federal courts to defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of its own ambiguous regulations—the Federal Circuit deferred to the VA’s interpretation of “relevant,” and affirmed the VA’s denial of retroactive payments.
Should the Supreme Court overrule Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co, 325 U.S. 410 (1945), and Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997), which require courts to defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of its own ambiguous regulations?
No. If, after exhausting the traditional tools of construction, a court concludes that a regulation is genuinely ambiguous, that the agency’s interpretation is reasonable, and that the context of the agency interpretation entitles it to controlling weight, a court must defer to the agency’s interpretation.
“Auer deference retains an important role in construing agency regulations. But even as we uphold it, we reinforce its limits.”
Justice Kagan, writing for the Court
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