May 22, 2013
Assistance for Older Workers

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

In 2002, Congress created a program called Alternative Trade Adjustment Assistance for Older Workers (“ATAA”). The program provided wage supplements for certain unemployed workers who became reemployed at lower wages.

The law that created the program stated that a worker who was eligible may elect to receive benefits under the program if he or she meets certain conditions. Among those conditions, the law states that workers are eligible if they are “at least 50 years of age.”

That section of the law became the focus of a case that we reviewed here – at the Ohio Supreme Court. The case involved three men – James Lang, Mark Laibe, and Teddy Sharp (“the applicants”) who were dismissed from their jobs at American Standard in December 2007. They eventually found new jobs and applied for ATAA.

Their applications were denied by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (“ODJFS”) because none of the applicants was at least 50 at the time of reemployment. ODJFS denied the applications on that ground because of an interpretation of the law by the Department of Labor, which administers ATAA. The Department stated that individuals must be at least 50 at the time of reemployment.

“The applicants” eventually turned to the courts. The trial court determined that the ATAA law was ambiguous because it didn’t address when an applicant must be at least 50 years old – at the time of reemployment or at the time the application was filed. The trial court concluded that the law was intended to help workers, and therefore awarding ATAA benefits to “the applicants” adhered to the clear intent of Congress in passing the act.

ODJFS appealed this decision, arguing that the trial court had erred by ignoring the Department of Labor’s interpretation that the law required those who apply for ATAA to be 50 at the time of reemployment.

But the court of appeals rejected this argument and affirmed the trial court’s judgment. The court of appeals concluded that the law was unambiguous, reasoning that the language providing that a worker “may elect to receive benefits” if the worker “is at least 50” indicates that an individual must be at least 50 at the time the individual elects to receive ATAA benefits.

The court of appeals reasoned that the requirement set forth by the Department of Labor’s interpretation of the law – that the applicant must be 50 at the time of reemployment – is not only unnecessary to carry out the ATAA provisions, but is also manifestly contrary to the language of the law.

When the case came before us, ODJFS argued that because of its contractual obligation to the Department of Labor to facilitate distribution of ATAA funds, it was obligated to follow the Department’s directives. ODJFS also argued that the Department reasonably interpreted the ambiguity in the age requirement in the law.

Because of this supposed ambiguity, the Department’s expertise in the area, and the reasonableness of the interpretation, ODJFS concluded that we should defer to the Department’s interpretation.

So the crux of the dispute before us was this: ODJFS argued that the age requirement language in the ATAA law was ambiguous and that the interpretation presented by the Department of Labor was reasonable. “The applicants” agreed with the court of appeals that Congress clearly stated that an applicant must be 50 at the time he elects to receive ATAA benefits and that the law is unambiguous.

By a four-to-three vote, our court agreed with ODJFS that the law is ambiguous because it leaves open the question whether an applicant must be 50 at the time of reemployment or at the time application is made for benefits. The majority thus reversed the court of appeals’ judgment.

I cast one of the dissenting votes. The majority opinion stated that the ATAA law is ambiguous, because it leaves open the question whether an applicant must be 50 at the time of reemployment or at the time application is made for benefits.

In doing so, the majority opinion confuses a law’s lack of comprehensiveness with ambiguity. There’s no question that it’s not comprehensive. That should surprise nobody; it’s exceedingly difficult to draft a law that covers every single potentiality. But failing to do so isn’t the standard for ambiguity.

With respect to the issue before us, the law states that a worker “may elect to receive benefits ... if the worker ... is at least 50 years of age.”

Nothing about that is ambiguous – it’s understandable, reasonable, and fits within the scheme of the law. It’s not susceptible of more than one meaning. Yet the majority opinion analyzed the sentence as if it was ambiguous. The majority then compounded that mistake by granting undue deference to an interpretation by the Department of Labor.

The majority opinion violated some of our most common precepts. In a case from 1979 our court stated that where language of a law is clear and unambiguous, it is the duty of the court to enforce the law as written. That same basic precept has been reiterated in other cases through the years.

With this case, the majority opinion does not “enforce the law as written.” Rather, it modifies it under the guise of interpretation, and adds words to the law. The fact that the Department of Labor had already done so doesn’t excuse this court from its obligation to enforce the law as written.

Congress could have stated that applicants are not eligible unless they are 50 years old at the time of reemployment. It did not. Instead, Congress enacted a law that states that applicants may elect to receive benefits if, among other things, they are at least 50 years old. The plain meaning of the law is not ambiguous. Accordingly, I would analyze it without according deference to the Department of Labor’s interpretation.

Because “the applicants” were 50 years old when they elected to receive benefits, I concluded that they fit within the standard set forth in the law. I would have therefore affirmed the decision of the court of appeals.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is Lang v. Dir., Ohio Dept. of Job & Family Servs., 134 Ohio St.3d 296, 2012-Ohio-5366. Case No. 2011-1740. Decided November 21, 2012. Majority opinion written by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.