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Reed v. Taylor

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 2, 2019

JERRY REED, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
ALLISON TAYLOR, in her Individual Capacity; BARBARA MACNAIR, in her Official and Individual Capacity; PROGRAM SPECIALIST HOLLY WHITE, in her Official and Individual Capacity; KRISTY ALFORD, in her Official and Individual Capacity; MARSHA MCLANE, in her Official Capacity, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before ELROD, WILLETT, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.

          DON R. WILLETT, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Jerry Reed is a civilly committed sexually violent predator. Under now-repealed Texas law, he had to pay for GPS monitoring or else face criminal prosecution. Reed's sole income, though, was Social Security. He contends that the pay-or-be-prosecuted penalty violated the Social Security Act's anti-attachment provision, 42 U.S.C. § 407(a), which protects benefits from "execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process."

         Reed is mistaken. His Social Security benefits were not executed on, levied, attached, or garnished. And "other legal process" is not a limitless catchall. The time-honored ejusdem generis canon confines the phrase to processes like those specifically enumerated. Section 407(a) has a familiar specific-then-general syntactic construction where the upfront enumeration limits the tagalong residual phrase. In other words, "other legal process" doesn't mean any process; it means other similar process. And because the threat of criminal prosecution differs materially from the specific processes listed, we AFFIRM the district court's judgment.

         I

         The Texas Office of Violent Sex Offender Management was responsible for Reed's treatment and supervision.[1] Texas Health and Safety Code Chapter 841 and Reed's Order of Commitment require him to wear a GPS tracking device.[2] Chapter 841 also requires him to pay for the tracking service.[3] During the applicable period, failure to pay was punishable as a third-degree felony.[4](The criminal penalty was repealed in 2015.[5]) The defendant officials each implemented or enforced that statutory requirement.[6] Put differently, each official told Reed he had to pay for GPS tracking or be liable for a felony.

         Reed is "totally blind" and receives Social Security disability benefits. For at least part of the applicable time, Social Security was his only source of income. Reed asserts that requiring him to pay for GPS monitoring under threat of criminal prosecution subjected his Social Security money to "other legal process" in violation of § 407(a). He sued the officials for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         The district court granted summary judgment to the officials based on qualified immunity, holding that the threat of criminal prosecution wasn't "other legal process" under clearly established law. Reed appealed. We appointed counsel to assist Reed under the circuit's pro bono program and deeply appreciate counsel's able representation.

         II

         The rules governing our consideration are familiar. First, the standard of review. We review immunity-based grants of summary judgment de novo.[7]

         Second, the summary-judgment standard. Under Rule 56, summary judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[8]

         Third, the qualified-immunity standard. "The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability so long as their conduct 'does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'"[9] "Once invoked, a plaintiff bears the burden of rebutting qualified immunity by showing two things: (1) that the officials violated a statutory or constitutional right and (2) that the right was 'clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.'"[10] Clearly established means that "[t]he contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right."[11] "The central concern is whether the official has fair warning . . . ."[12]"To answer that question in the affirmative, we must be able to point to controlling authority-or a 'robust consensus of persuasive authority'-that defines the contours of the right in question with a high degree of particularity."[13]

         III

         The question is straightforward: Did the GPS payment policy subject Reed's Social Security benefits to "execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process" in violation of § 407(a)? The answer, equally straightforward, is no.

         A

         Our Constitution's ingenious architecture demands that judges be sticklers when decoding legislative text. The law begins with language, and the foremost task of legal interpretation is divining what the law is, not what the judge-interpreter wishes it to be.

         On that score, our precedent favors bright lines and sharp corners, including unswerving fidelity to statutory language: "Text is the alpha and the omega of the interpretive process."[14] Judges are minders, not makers or menders. All to say, we must take Congress at its word, presume it meant what it said, and refuse to revise statutes under the guise of interpreting them.[15]

         True, congressional handiwork is now and again imprecise-sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. But judges rarely need secret decoder rings to decrypt legislative language. Statutory language, like all language, is suffused with age-old interpretive conventions. And judges, like all readers, must be attentive not to words standing alone but to surrounding structure and other contextual cues that illuminate meaning.[16]

         This case is about the legal interpretation of three words-"other legal process"-but that task requires us to discern the meaning of accompanying words and how they are knit together.[17] Robotic literal parsing can sometimes cloak rather than clarify.[18] In this case, familiar linguistic clues-not to mention on-point Supreme Court precedent-reveal § 407(a)'s semantic import as a harmonious whole.

         B

         Our inquiry begins and ends with the text of § 407(a), which limits the taking of Social Security benefits:

The right of any person to any future payment under this subchapter shall not be transferable or assignable, at law or in equity, and none of the moneys paid or payable or rights existing under this subchapter shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process, or to the operation of any bankruptcy or insolvency law.

         The phrasing of the bolded language requires application of the ejusdem generis canon: "[w]here general words follow specific words in a statutory enumeration, the general words are construed to embrace only objects similar in nature to those objects enumerated by the preceding specific words."[19]Section 407(a) follows this familiar semantic structure, meaning the follow-on phrase "other legal process" is limited to processes like "execution, levy, attachment, [or] garnishment." Common phrasing; common-sense meaning. A broader reading would "fail[] to give independent effect to the statute's enumeration of the specific categories" earlier in the sentence.[20]

         The Supreme Court agrees. In Keffeler, the Court held that the "usual rules of statutory construction" require a "restrictive understanding of 'other legal process.'"[21] The issue was whether the state of Washington could use children's Social Security benefits to reimburse itself for their foster care.[22] The plaintiffs contended that this unlawfully subjected the children's benefits to "other legal process."[23] The Court invoked both ejusdem generis and noscitur a sociis.[24] It held that "other legal process" in context means "process much like the processes of execution, levy, attachment, and garnishment" and so requires (1) "utilization of some judicial or quasi-judicial mechanism," (2) "by which control over property passes from one person to another," (3) "to discharge or secure discharge of an allegedly existing or anticipated liability."[25] So Washington's use of Social Security money to offset foster care expenses was not "other legal process." It did not use judicial or quasi-judicial means; did not pass control of any funds (which were already in the state's possession because it had "representative payee" status under the Act); and did not discharge an enforceable obligation.[26]

         Applying Keffeler to this case, the specter of prosecution is not "other legal process." Although the threat led to a transfer of property, and arguably discharged a Chapter 841 liability, it did not use a judicial or quasi-judicial mechanism. A threat of future action is not an "exercise of some sort of judicial or quasi-judicial authority to gain control over another's property" as Keffeler puts it.[27] Congress protected Social Security beneficiaries from judicially enforced transfers, not threats of liability.[28]

         Reed's contrary cases are distinguishable or otherwise unpersuasive in light of Keffeler. First are two other Supreme Court cases interpreting § 407(a). In Philpott v. Essex County Welfare Board, the Court prohibited New Jersey from attaching a man's Social Security money to secure his repayment of state welfare benefits.[29] The Court held that this action "was an attempt to subject the money to 'levy, attachment . . . or other legal process'" and thus violated § 407(a).[30] Similarly, in Bennett v. Arkansas the Court held that Arkansas could not "attach certain federal [Social Security] benefits paid to individuals who are incarcerated in Arkansas prisons."[31]

         Both Philpott and Bennett are distinguishable. They do not interpret "other legal process." Rather, as the Court explained in Keffeler, "both Philpott and Bennett involved judicial actions in which a State sought to attach a beneficiary's Social Security benefits . . . . Unlike the present case, then, both Philpott and Benn ...


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