The US Supreme Court unanimously refused Wednesday to overturn precedent that gives power to agencies are when interpreting their own regulations. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Elena Kagan, detailed ways to constrain this heavy agency deference, commonly known as the Auer doctrine.
The case, Kisor v. Wilkie, revolved around the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) interpretation of their regulations. Kisor, a veteran, sought disability benefits in 1983 for his PTSD after serving in the Vietnam war. Despite denying his claim, Kisor requested additional review of his case in 2006, claiming he located new evidence (that existed in 1983, but had not been presented) to support a diagnosis of PTSD.
Kisor’s request for additional review was granted, but under a VA provision less favorable to veterans. Kisor argued that he was entitled to relief under Section 3.156(c). The provision allows the agency to review a previously denied claim when it receives “relevant official service department records that existed and had not been associated with the claims file when VA first decided the claim.” Relief under this regulation grants benefits pursuant to a retroactive effective date. In contrast, benefits granted under Section 3.156(a) are only effective only upon reopening of the application.
The VA interpreted Section 3.156(c), which requires new “relevant” evidence” in order to revisit a case, to mean evidence that is outcome determinate – subsequently denying Kisor relief under the provision. As a result, Kisor challenged court’s deference to the VA’s interpretation.
According to precedent decided in Auer v. Robbins, agencies are awarded great deference when interpreting their own regulations. In the majority opinion, Kagan outlined the importance of giving weight to agencies due to their specialized expertise.
However, the court specified that strong deference should only be given when the regulation is truly ambiguous, and all tools of construction have been exhausted. After finding ambiguity, the agency’s reading must be reasonable and even then, a court must still make an independent inquiry into the context of the decision.
Justice Neil Gorush wrote a concurrence, agreeing only in judgement and criticizing the courts limitations on the Auer doctrine. Other concurrences written by the remaining conservative justices, indicated that they did not believe the majority ruling prevented a review of Chevron deference.
The case returns to a federal appeals court to determine whether deference specifically applies