Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., 458 U.S. 564 (1982)

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Author: Justice Rehnquist

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Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., 458 U.S. 564 (1982)

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the application of 46 U.S.C. § 596, which requires certain masters and vessel owners to pay seamen promptly after their discharge and authorizes seamen to recover double wages for each day that payment is delayed without sufficient cause. The question is whether the district courts, in the exercise of discretion, may limit the period during which this wage penalty is assessed, or whether imposition of the penalty is mandatory for each day that payment is withheld in violation of the statute.

I

On February 18, 1976, petitioner signed an employment contract with respondent in New Orleans, agreeing to work as a senior pipeline welder on board vessels operated by respondent in the North Sea. The contract specified that petitioner’s employment would extend "until December 15, 1976, or until Oceanic’s 1976 pipeline committal in the North Sea is fulfilled, whichever shall occur first." App. 41. The contract also provided that respondent would pay for transportation to and from the worksite, but that, if petitioner quit the job prior to its termination date, or if his services were terminated for cause, he would be charged with the cost of transportation back to the United States. Respondent reserved the right to withhold $137.50 from each of petitioner’s first four paychecks "as a cash deposit for the payment of your return transportation in the event you should become obligated for its payment." Id. at 47. On March 6, 1976, petitioner flew from the United States to Antwerp, Belgium, where he reported to work at respondent’s vessel, the "Lay Barge 27," berthed in the Antwerp harbor for repairs.

On April 1, 1976, petitioner suffered an injury while working on the deck of the vessel readying it for sea. Two days later, he underwent emergency surgery in Antwerp. On April 5, petitioner was discharged from the hospital and went to respondent’s Antwerp office, where he spoke with Jesse Williams, the welding superintendent, and provided a physician’s statement that he was not fit for duty. Williams refused to acknowledge that petitioner’s injury was work-related and denied that respondent was liable for medical and hospital expenses, maintenance, or unearned wages. Williams also refused to furnish transportation back to the United States, and continued to retain $412.50 in earned wages that had been deducted from petitioner’s first three paychecks for that purpose. Petitioner returned to his home in Houston, Tex., the next day at his own expense. He was examined there by a physician who determined that he would be able to resume work on May 3, 1976. On May 5, petitioner began working as a welder for another company operating in the North Sea.

In 1978, he brought suit against respondent under the Jones Act, § 20, 38 Stat. 1185, as amended, 46 U.S.C. § 688, and under general maritime law, seeking damages for respondent’s failure to pay maintenance, cure, unearned wages, repatriation expenses, and the value of certain personal effects lost on board respondent’s vessel. Petitioner also sought penalty wages under Rev.Stat. § 4529, as amended, 46 U.S.C. § 596, for respondent’s failure to pay over the $412.50 in earned wages allegedly due upon discharge. The District Court found for petitioner and awarded damages totalling $23,670.40.

Several findings made by that court are particularly relevant to this appeal. First, the court found that petitioner’s injury was proximately caused by an unseaworthy condition of respondent’s vessel. App. 17, ¶ 10; 23, ¶ 6. Second, the court found that petitioner was discharged from respondent’s employ on the day of the injury, and that the termination of his employment was caused solely by that injury. Id. at 18, ¶ 16; 23, ¶ 7.{1} Third, it found that respondent’s failure to pay petitioner the $412.50 in earned wages was "without sufficient cause."Id. at 20, ¶ 20; 25, ¶ 11.{2} Finally, the court found that petitioner had exercised due diligence in attempting to collect those wages. Id. at 20, ¶ 21.

In assessing penalty wages under 46 U.S.C. § 596, the court held that

[t]he period during which the penalty runs is to be determined by the sound discretion of the district court, and depends on the equities of the case.

App. 25, ¶11. It determined that the appropriate period for imposition of the penalty was from the date of discharge, April 1, 1976, through the date of petitioner’s reemployment, May 5, 1976, a period of 34 days. Applying the statute, it computed a penalty of $6,881.60.{3} Petitioner appealed the award of damages as inadequate.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 664 F.2d 36 (1981). That court concluded, inter alia, that the District Court had not erred in limiting assessment of the penalty provided by 46 U.S.C. § 596 to the period beginning April 1 and ending May 5. The court recognized that the statute required payment of a penalty for each day during which wages were withheld until the date they were actually paid, which, in this case, did not occur until September 17, 1980, when respondent satisfied the judgment of the District Court. Id. at 40; see App. 30. Nevertheless, the court believed itself bound by prior decisions within the Circuit, which left calculation of the penalty period to the sound discretion of the district courts. 664 F.2d at 40. It concluded that the District Court in this case had not abused its discretion by assessing a penalty only for the period during which petitioner was unemployed.

We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Circuits regarding the proper application of the wage penalty statute.{4} 454 U.S. 1052 (1981). We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals as to that issue.{5}

II

A

The language of the statute first obligates the master or owner of any vessel making coasting or foreign voyages to pay every seaman the balance of his unpaid wages within specified periods after his discharge.{6} It then provides:

Every master or owner who refuses or neglects to make payment in the manner hereinbefore mentioned without sufficient cause shall pay to the seaman a sum equal to two days’ pay for each and every day during which payment is delayed beyond the respective periods. . . .

The statute, in straightforward terms, provides for the payment of double wages, depending upon the satisfaction of two conditions. First, the master or owner must have refused or failed to pay the seaman his wages within the periods specified. Second, this failure or refusal must be "without sufficient cause." Once these conditions are satisfied, however, the unadorned language of the statute dictates that the master or owner "shall pay to the seaman" the sums specified "for each and every day during which payment is delayed." The words chosen by Congress, given their plain meaning, leave no room for the exercise of discretion either in deciding whether to exact payment or in choosing the period of days by which the payment is to be calculated. As this Court described the statute many years ago, it

affords a definite and reasonable procedure by which the seaman may establish his right to recover double pay where his wages are unreasonably withheld.

McCrea v. United States, 294 U.S. 23, 32 (1935). Our task is to give effect to the will of Congress, and, where its will has been expressed in reasonably plain terms, "that language must ordinarily be regarded as conclusive." Consumer Product Safety Comm’n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108 (1980).

The District Court found that respondent had refused to pay petitioner the balance of his earned wages promptly after discharge, and that its refusal was "without sufficient cause." Respondent challenges neither of these findings. Although the two statutory conditions were satisfied, however, the District Court obviously did not assess double wages "for each and every day" during which payment was delayed, but instead limited the assessment to the period of petitioner’s unemployment. Nothing in the language of the statute vests the courts with the discretion to set such a limitation.

B

Nevertheless, respondent urges that the legislative purpose of the statute is best served by construing it to permit some choice in determining the length of the penalty period. In respondent’s view, the purpose of the statute is essentially remedial and compensatory, and thus it should not be interpreted literally to produce a monetary award that is so far in excess of any equitable remedy as to be punitive.

Respondent, however, is unable to support this view of legislative purpose by reference to the terms of the statute.

There is, of course, no more persuasive evidence of the purpose of a statute than the words by which the legislature undertook to give expression to its wishes.

United States v. American Trucking Assns., Inc., 310 U.S. 534, 543 (1940). See Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470, 490 (1917). Nevertheless, in rare cases, the literal application of a statute will produce a result demonstrably at odds with the intentions of its drafters, and those intentions must be controlling. We have reserved

some "scope for adopting a restricted, rather than a literal or usual, meaning of its words where acceptance of that meaning . . . would thwart the obvious purpose of the statute."

Commissioner v. Brown, 380 U.S. 563, 571 (1965) (quoting Helvering v. Hammel, 311 U.S. 504, 510-511 (1941)). This, however, is not the exceptional case.

As the Court recognized in Collie v. Fergusson, 281 U.S. 52 (1930), the "evident purpose" of the statute is

to secure prompt payment of seamen’s wages . . . and thus to protect them from the harsh consequences of arbitrary and unscrupulous action of their employers, to which, as a class, they are peculiarly exposed.

Id. at 55. This was to be accomplished

by the imposition of a liability which is not exclusively compensatory, but designed to prevent, by its coercive effect, arbitrary refusals to pay wages, and to induce prompt payment when payment is possible.

Id. at 55-56. Thus, although the sure purpose of the statute is remedial, Congress has chosen to secure that purpose through the use of potentially punitive sanctions designed to deter negligent or arbitrary delays in payment.

The legislative history of the statute leaves little, if any, doubt that this understanding is correct. The law owes its origins to the Act of July 20, 1790, ch. 29, § 6, 1 Stat. 133, passed by the First Congress. Although the statute as originally enacted gave every seaman the right to collect the wages due under his contract "as soon as the voyage is ended," it did not provide for the recovery of additional sums to encourage compliance. Such a provision was added by the Shipping Commissioners Act of 1872, ch. 322, § 35, 17 Stat. 269, which provided for the payment of "a sum not exceeding the amount of two days’ pay for each of the days, not exceeding ten days, during which payment is delayed." The Act of 1872 obviously established a ceiling of 10 days on the period during which the penalty could be assessed and, by use of the words "not exceeding," left the courts with discretion to choose an appropriate penalty within that period.{7}

Congress amended the law again in 1898. As amended, it read in relevant part:

Every master or owner who refuses or neglects to make payment in manner hereinbefore mentioned without sufficient cause shall pay to the seaman a sum equal to one day’s pay for each and every day during which payment is delayed beyond the respective periods.

Act of Dec. 21, 1898, ch. 28, § 4, 30 Stat. 756. The amending legislation thus effected two changes: first, it removed the discretion theretofore existing by which courts might award less than an amount calculated on the basis of each day during which payment was delayed, and, second, it removed the 10-day ceiling which theretofore limited the number of days upon which an award might be calculated. The accompanying Committee Reports identify the purpose of the legislation as "the amelioration of the condition of the American seamen," and characterize the amended wage penalty in particular as "designed to secure the promptest possible payment of wages." H.R.Rep. No. 1657, 55th Cong., 2d Sess., 2, 3 (1898). See also S.Rep. No. 832, 54th Cong., 1st Sess., 2 (1896).{8} Nothing in the legislative history of the 1898 Act suggests that Congress intended to do anything other than what the Act’s enacted language plainly demonstrates: to strengthen the deterrent effect of the statute by removing the courts’ latitude in assessing the wage penalty.

The statute was amended for the last time in 1915 to increase further the severity of the penalty by doubling the wages due for each day during which payment of earned wages was delayed. Seamen’s Act of 1915, ch. 153, § 3, 38 Stat. 1164. There is no suggestion in the Committee Reports or in the floor debates that, in so doing, Congress intended to reinvest the courts with the discretion it had removed in the Act of 1898. Resort to the legislative history, therefore, merely confirms that Congress intended the statute to mean exactly what its plain language says.

III

Respondent argues, however, that a literal construction of the statute in this case would produce an absurd and unjust result which Congress could not have intended. The District Court found that the daily wage to be used in computing the penalty was $101.20. If the statute is applied literally, petitioner would receive twice this amount for each day after his discharge until September 17, 1980, when respondent satisfied the District Court’s judgment.{9} Petitioner would receive over $300,000 simply because respondent improperly withheld $412.50 in wages. In respondent’s view, Congress could not have intended seamen to receive windfalls of this nature without regard to the equities of the case.

It is true that interpretations of a statute which would produce absurd results are to be avoided if alternative interpretations consistent with the legislative purpose are available. See United States v. American Trucking Assns., Inc., 310 U.S. at 542-543; Haggar Co. v. Helvering, 308 U.S. 389, 394 (1940). In refusing to nullify statutes, however hard or unexpected the particular effect, this Court has said:

Laws enacted with good intention, when put to the test, frequently, and to the surprise of the lawmaker himself, turn out to be mischievous, absurd or otherwise objectionable. But in such case, the remedy lies with the lawmaking authority, and not with the courts.

Crooks v. Harrelson, 282 U.S. 55, 60 (1930).

It is highly probable that respondent is correct in its contention that a recovery in excess of $300,000 in this case greatly exceeds any actual injury suffered by petitioner as a result of respondent’s delay in paying his wages. But this Court has previously recognized that awards made under this statute were not intended to be merely compensatory:

We think the use of this language indicates a purpose to protect seamen from delayed payments of wages by the imposition of a liability which is not exclusively compensatory, but designed to prevent, by its coercive effect, arbitrary refusals to pay wages, and to induce prompt payment when payment is possible.

Collie v. Fergusson, 281 U.S. at 55-56.

It is in the nature of punitive remedies to authorize awards that may be out of proportion to actual injury; such remedies typically are established to deter particular conduct, and the legislature not infrequently finds that harsh consequences must be visited upon those whose conduct it would deter. It is probably true that Congress did not precisely envision the grossness of the difference in this case between the actual wages withheld and the amount of the award required by the statute. But it might equally well be said that Congress did not precisely envision the trebled amount of some damages awards in private antitrust actions, see Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., 442 U.S. 330, 344-345 (1979), or that, because it enacted the Endangered Species Act,

the survival of a relatively small number of three-inch fish . . . would require the permanent halting of a virtually completed dam for which Congress ha[d] expended more than $1 million,

TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 172 (1978). It is enough that Congress intended that the language it enacted would be applied as we have applied it. The remedy for any dissatisfaction with the results in particular cases lies with Congress, and not with this Court. Congress may amend the statute; we may not. See Consumer Product Safety Comm’n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. at 123-124; Reiter v. Sonotone, supra, at 344-345.

Finally, we note that our holding is consistent with Pacific Mail S.S. Co. v. Schmidt, 241 U.S. 245 (1916). The employer in that case challenged a decision by the Court of Appeals to apply the wage penalty to the delay after the District Court’s judgment occasioned by the employer’s appeal. The Court held that, on the facts of that case, application of the penalty beyond the date of the District Court’s judgment was error. Contrary to respondent’s assertion, however, the holding does not reflect the discretionary tailoring of the penalty to the equities of the case. Instead, the Court held that the delay pending appeal was not "without sufficient cause," as required by the statute before the penalty can attach.Id. at 250.{10} As we explained earlier, a condition to the imposition of the wage penalty is a finding that the delay in payment is "without sufficient cause." To the extent that the equities of the situation are to be considered, see Collie v. Fergusson, supra, they bear on that finding, and not on the calculation of the penalty period once that finding has been made.

IV

The District Court found that respondent’s refusal to pay petitioner earned wages following his discharge was without sufficient cause. It applied the wage penalty only for the period of nonpayment during which petitioner was unable to work. It made no finding, however, that respondent’s continuing delay in payment beyond that period was for sufficient cause. Under the plain language of the statute, therefore, its decision to limit the penalty period was error. The judgment of the Court of Appeals affirming that decision accordingly is reversed, and the case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

1. According to respondent, petitioner was not formally discharged until June 1, 1976, but his termination was made retroactive to April 1. Brief for Respondent 5.

2. The court also found:

Defendant did not begin a thorough investigation of plaintiff’s claim until September 30, 1976. The investigation was not made with reasonable diligence. Defendant’s failure to pay maintenance and cure, repatriation expenses, the cost of his personal effects, and earned and unearned wages to plaintiff constituted arbitrary, unreasonable, callous, and willful disregard of plaintiff’s rights.

App. 20, ¶ 21.

3. The court found that the daily wage rate to be used in calculating the penalty was $101.20. In accordance with the statute, the court assessed a penalty of twice this rate ($202.40) for each of the 34 days of the penalty period.

4. The Courts of Appeals for the Third and Ninth Circuits have interpreted the statute to mandate imposition of the penalty for each day until the wages are paid, and to leave no room for the district court’s exercise of discretion. Swain v. Isthmian Lines, Inc., 360 F.2d 81 (CA3 1966); Larkins v. Hudson Waterways Corp., 640 F.2d 997 (CA9 1981); Thomas v. SS Santa Mercedes, 572 F.2d 1331 (CA9 1978). The Courts of Appeals for the First, Second, and Fourth Circuits have adopted the interpretation followed by the Fifth Circuit. Mavromatis v. United Greek Shipowners Corp., 179 F.2d 310 (CA1 1950); Forster v. Oro Navigation Co., 228 F.2d 319 (CA2 1955), aff’g 128 F.Supp. 113 (SDNY 1954); Southern Cross S.S. Co. v. Firipis, 285 F.2d 651 (CA4 1960), cert. denied, 365 U.S. 869 (1961). We noted this conflict in American Foreign S.S. Co. v. Matise, 423 U.S. 150, 152, n. 1 (1975).

5. Petitioner has not questioned the other holdings of the Court of Appeals in his case. Respondent did not appeal from the judgment of the District Court, and has not cross-petitioned for certiorari here.

6. The statute reads in full:

The master or owner of any vessel making coasting voyages shall pay to every seaman his wages within two days after the termination of the agreement under which he was shipped, or at the time such seaman is discharged, whichever first happens; and in case of vessels making foreign voyages, or from a port on the Atlantic to a port on the Pacific, or vice versa, within twenty-four hours after the cargo has been discharged, or within four days after the seaman has been discharged, whichever first happens; and in all cases the seaman shall be entitled to be paid at the time of his discharge on account of wages a sum equal to one-third part of the balance due him. Every master or owner who refuses or neglects to make payment in the manner hereinbefore mentioned without sufficient cause shall pay to the seaman a sum equal to two days’ pay for each and every day during which payment is delayed beyond the respective periods, which sum shall be recoverable as wages in any claim made before the court; but this section shall not apply to masters or owners of any vessel the seamen of which are entitled to share in the profits of the cruise or voyage. This section shall not apply to fishing or whaling vessels or yachts.

7. The Act of 1790 and the Act of 1872 provided the basis for § 4529 of the Revised Statutes, codified in 1878. Section 4529 read as follows:

The master or owner of every vessel making voyages from a port on the Atlantic to a port on the Pacific, or vice versa, shall pay to every seaman his wages, within two days after the termination of the agreement, or at the time such seaman is discharged, whichever first happens; and, in the case of vessels making foreign voyages, within three days after the cargo has been delivered, or within five days after the seaman’s discharge, whichever first happens; and in all cases the seaman shall, at the time of his discharge, be entitled to be paid, on account, a sum equal to one-fourth part of the balance due him. Every master or owner who neglects or refuses to make payment in manner hereinbefore mentioned, without sufficient cause, shall pay to the seaman a sum not exceeding the amount of two days’ pay for each of the days, not exceeding ten days, during which payment is delayed beyond the respective periods; which sum shall be recoverable as wages in any claim made before the court. But this section shall not apply to the masters or owners of any vessel the seamen on which are entitled to share in the profits of the cruise or voyage.

8. The 1898 Act was substantially identical to legislation that had passed the House in the previous Congress, and had been favorably reported in the Senate, but had failed to come to a vote before the end of the session. Thus, the House Report of the legislation enacted in 1898 contained little more than a reproduction of the House Report of the previous Congress, and the relevant Senate Report also dates from that Congress.

9. Respondent assumes that the penalty would run until September 17, 1980, since that was the date on which it finally paid petitioner the $412.50. Brief for Respondent 17. Petitioner, on the other hand, apparently assumes that the penalty period expired on May 6, 1980, the date of the District Court’s judgment. Brief for Petitioner 19. Under our construction of the statute, the District Court’s entry of judgment will not toll the running of the penalty period unless delays beyond that date are explained by sufficient cause. See Pacific Mail S.S. Co. v. Schmidt, 241 U.S. 245, 250-251 (1916) (holding that, when an appeal is taken on reasonable grounds, the penalty should not apply to delays in payment beyond the date on which the district court’s decree is entered, since those delays are supported by sufficient cause). The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Southern Cross S.S. Co. v. Firipis, 285 F.2d at 660, and the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Swain v. Isthmian Lines, Inc., 360 F.2d at 88, n. 26, have interpreted this Court’s decision in Pacific Mail to permit the employer to toll the running of the penalty period by placing in the hands of the court the allegedly unlawfully withheld wages.

10. The Court found that the employer "had strong and reasonable ground for believing that the statute ought not to be held to apply," 241 U.S. at 250, because the work for which the seaman claimed unpaid wages did not occur during a voyage, and was the result of an oral contract.

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Chicago: Rehnquist, "Rehnquist, J., Lead Opinion," Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., 458 U.S. 564 (1982) in 458 U.S. 564 458 U.S. 566–458 U.S. 577. Original Sources, accessed February 3, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FA9UMDWJRPTDKS.

MLA: Rehnquist. "Rehnquist, J., Lead Opinion." Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., 458 U.S. 564 (1982), in 458 U.S. 564, pp. 458 U.S. 566–458 U.S. 577. Original Sources. 3 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FA9UMDWJRPTDKS.

Harvard: Rehnquist, 'Rehnquist, J., Lead Opinion' in Griffin v. Oceanic Contractors, Inc., 458 U.S. 564 (1982). cited in 1982, 458 U.S. 564, pp.458 U.S. 566–458 U.S. 577. Original Sources, retrieved 3 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FA9UMDWJRPTDKS.