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Sharp v. United States

August 26, 2009

PATRICIA R. SHARP, MARGARET M. HAVERKAMP, AND IVA DEAN ROGERS, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
UNITED STATES, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States Court of Federal Claims in 07-CV-547, Judge George W. Miller.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mayer, Circuit Judge.

Before MAYER, CLEVENGER, and SCHALL, Circuit Judges.

The United States appeals the judgment of the United States Court of Federal Claims, which denied its motion to dismiss, and granted the motion for summary judgment of Patricia Sharp, Margaret Haverkamp, and Iva Rogers, permitting them to receive Survivor Benefit Plan ("SBP") payments unreduced by the amount of their reinstated Dependency and Indemnity Compensation ("DIC") payments. Sharp v. United States, 82 Fed. Cl. 222 (2008). Because the Court of Federal Claims correctly determined that 38 U.S.C. § 1311(e) partially repealed 10 U.S.C. § 1450(c)(1), we affirm.

BACKGROUND

The appellees (collectively referred to in the singular as "Sharp") are surviving spouses of deceased veterans and military retirees of the United States Armed Forces, each of whom remarried after age 57. This case centers on statutory interpretation and involves two benefit programs: SBP, which is administered by the Department of Defense, and DIC, which is administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. SBP is an insurance-style program allowing eligible servicemembers and military retirees to elect to have premiums deducted from their pay in order to provide their spouses with additional benefits after their deaths. 10 U.S.C. § 1448 (2006). As the surviving spouse of a deceased military servicemember who chose to participate in SBP, Sharp is the primary beneficiary of annuity payments that became effective the first day after her spouse's death. Id. § 1450(a). DIC is a separate benefit, which is automatically paid to surviving spouses of veterans who died while on active duty or while suffering from a service-connected disability. 38 U.S.C. § 1310(a) (2006) ("When any veteran dies . . . from a service-connected or compensable disability, the Secretary shall pay [DIC] to such veteran's surviving spouse . . . ."). Sharp's spouse died while on active duty or while suffering from a service-connected disability. Thus, she is eligible to receive both SBP and DIC benefits.

Prior to 2003, surviving spouses receiving DIC payments became ineligible to continue receiving the benefit when they remarried. Congress responded by passing the Veterans Benefits Act of 2003 ("the Veterans Benefits Act"), which restored DIC benefits to surviving spouses who chose to remarry after age 57. Id. § 103(d)(2)(B) ("The remarriage after age 57 of the surviving spouse of a veteran shall not bar the furnishing of benefits [relating to DIC] to such person as the surviving spouse of the veteran."). The Veterans Benefits Act also provided that, "notwithstanding any other provision of law," those remarried spouses who are simultaneously eligible for other benefits inuring to surviving spouses of veterans do not suffer a reduction in their benefits due to the DIC payments. Id. § 1311(e).*fn1

The SBP and DIC benefit schemes, however, have contradicting provisions regulating offsets for those who receive both benefits. The SBP offset provision, which went into effect September 21, 1972, calls for reducing SBP payments by the amount the recipient receives in DIC benefits. 10 U.S.C. § 1450(c)(1) (2006) ("If . . . the surviving spouse . . . is also entitled to [DIC] under section 1311(a) of title 38, the surviving spouse . . . may be paid an annuity under this section, but only in the amount that the annuity otherwise payable under this section would exceed that compensation."). As stated above, however, the DIC scheme appears to prohibit a reduction in benefits, such as SBP payments, for widows like Sharp, notwithstanding provisions of law like the offset language in the SBP statute. See 38 U.S.C. § 1311(e) (2006). Nevertheless, the Department of Defense continued to enforce the SBP offset provision, and reduced Sharp's SBP payments by the amount she received in DIC benefits.

On July 19, 2007, Sharp filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims, asserting that the government improperly reduced her SBP payments by the amount of her DIC payments. The court granted summary judgment in her favor, holding that "section 1311(e) modifies or partially repeals 10 U.S.C. § 1450(c)(1) to the extent that SBP payments are not to be reduced by the amount of DIC payments to those surviving spouses who receive DIC by virtue of their having remarried after the age of 57." Sharp, 82 Fed. Cl. at 229. The government appeals, and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(3).

DISCUSSION

We review the trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo, reapplying the same standard as the trial court. Palahnuk v. United States, 475 F.3d 1380, 1382 (Fed. Cir. 2007). Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Rule 56(c) of the Rules of the United States Court of Federal Claims; see also Palahnuk, 475 F.3d at 1382.

I.

The statutory provisions at issue, 10 U.S.C. § 1450(c)(1) and 38 U.S.C. § 1311(e), are at odds: the SBP scheme calls for reducing SBP payments by the amount the recipient receives in DIC benefits, whereas the post-2003 DIC scheme prohibits such reductions for surviving spouses who remarry after age 57. Sharp urges, and the trial court held, that by its plain language section 1311(e) modifies or partially repeals section 1450(c)(1), so that surviving spouses who receive reinstated DIC by virtue of remarrying after age 57 receive their SBP payments unreduced by the amount of their DIC payments.

The government more restrictively reads the language of section 1311(e) as precluding the reduction of benefits by DIC payments only for those benefits that are paid to surviving spouses of veterans solely due to their status as surviving spouses. In order for a surviving spouse of a veteran to receive SBP, the veteran must have been eligible for retirement, 10 U.S.C. § 1448(a)(1), have chosen SBP coverage, id. § 1448(a)(2), and have paid premiums for the benefit, id. § 1452. Because eligibility for SBP benefits includes requirements additional to one's status as a surviving spouse of a veteran, the government concludes that SBP benefits are not included in the section 1311(e) ambit of protection.

We agree with Sharp and the trial court. To determine Congress' intent, we use the traditional tools of statutory construction, beginning with the text of the statute. Splane v. West, 216 F.3d, 1058, 1068 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (citing United States v. Gonzales, 520 U.S. 1, 4 (1997)). Where the intent is unambiguously expressed by the plain meaning of the statutory text, we give effect to that clear language without rendering any portion of it meaningless. Id. Here, Congress' intention to supersede all other laws (except a provision not at issue in this case), and prevent a decrease in some other benefit payment as a result of section 1311(e)'s restoration of DIC payments to surviving spouses who remarry after age 57, is plain on the face of the statute. 38 U.S.C. ยง 1311(e) ("[N]otwithstanding any other provision of law (other than section 5304(b)(3) of this title), no reduction in benefits under such other provision of law shall be made by reason of such individual's eligibility for benefits under this section."). Because the "notwithstanding" clause ...


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