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
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
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.
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.
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
We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Circuits regarding the proper application of the wage penalty statute.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom JUSTICE BLACKMUN joins, dissenting.
In final analysis, any question of statutory construction requires the judge to decide how the legislature intended its enactment to apply to the case at hand. The language of the statute is usually sufficient to answer that question, but "the reports are full of cases" in which the will of the legislature is not reflected in a literal reading of the words it has chosen.
On April 1, 1976, petitioner, a welder, suffered a temporarily disabling injury aboard respondent's vessel. On April 5, 1976, petitioner met with respondent's welding superintendent, who refused to acknowledge that respondent was responsible for the injury and who also refused to pay petitioner $412.50 in earned wages. Petitioner fully recovered from the injury by May 3, 1976, and two days later obtained comparable work with another employer. He filed this action on February 3, 1978. It is now settled that respondent was responsible for petitioner's injury and that respondent wrongfully refused to pay him $412.50 on April 5, 1976.
The question of statutory construction that is before us is what "sum shall be recoverable as wages" to compensate petitioner for respondent's refusal to pay him $412.50 on April 5, 1976. 46 U. S. C. § 596.
In pertinent part, § 596 provides as follows:
The text of the statute admittedly supports the construction given it by the Court—if there was not sufficient cause for the refusal to make payment within four days of the discharge, then the seaman is entitled to double wages for the entire period between the fourth day and the date the payment is finally made. The statute, however, is susceptible of another interpretation. Indeed, for a half century following its latest amendment the federal courts, including this Court,
In fixing the amount of the award of double wages, the District Court in this case may have reasoned that respondent had sufficient cause for its delay in paying the earned wages after petitioner obtained employment with another shipmaster, but that there was not sufficient cause for its failure to make payment before that time. Although this reasoning conflicts with a literal reading of § 596, it is perfectly consistent with this Court's contemporary construction of the statute in Pacific Mail S.S. Co. v. Schmidt, 241 U.S. 245 (1916). The teaching of Justice Holmes' opinion for the Court in that case is that the wrongful character of the initial refusal to pay does not mean that all subsequent delay in payment is also "without sufficient cause" within the meaning of the statute.
The controversy in Pacific Mail arose in 1913, when the statute provided that the sum recoverable as wages was measured by one day's pay, rather than double that amount, for each day that the wages were withheld without sufficient cause; the statute was otherwise exactly as it is today. The seaman was discharged on October 1, 1913, but $30.33 was withheld from his wages because he was believed responsible for the loss of some silverware. He filed an action on October 20, 1913, and on November 5, 1913, obtained a judgment for his wages and an additional sum of $151.59, representing the sum recoverable as wages for the period between October 1 and November 5, 1913. The District Court's decree established the proposition that the vessel owner's defenses did not constitute sufficient cause for refusing to pay the wages and requiring the seaman to sue to recover them.
The vessel owner prosecuted an unsuccessful appeal. The Court of Appeals not only affirmed the decision of the District Court, but also added an additional recovery of daily wages for the period between the entry of the original judgment
The curious character of this Court's conclusion that reasons insufficient to justify the refusal to pay before the trial court's decision somehow became sufficient to justify a subsequent refusal to pay is not the most significant point to Justice Holmes' opinion. The case is primarily significant because its holding cannot be squared with a literal reading of the statute.
In Pacific Mail the subsequent event was the vessel owner's decision to appeal. The finding that that event provided sufficient cause for the delay after November 5, 1913, was made sua sponte by this Court. In this case the subsequent event was the reemployment of petitioner in a comparable job on May 5, 1976. The finding that that event—coupled with the failure to make any additional demand for almost two years thereafter—was sufficient cause for the delay after May 5, 1976, was made by the District Court. It is true that the judge did not expressly frame his decision in these terms, but his actual decision fits precisely the mold established by Pacific Mail. Both cases give a flexible reading to the "sufficient cause" language in the statute. They differ with respect to the nature of the subsequent event but not with respect to their departure from the statutory text.
The second case in which this Court construed § 596, Collie v. Fergusson, 281 U.S. 52 (1930), also focused on the meaning of the phrase "without sufficient cause." In that case the unpaid seamen claimed that the financial necessities of the owner could not constitute sufficient cause for delay in wage payments; that contention was surely consistent with the plain language of the statute. This Court nevertheless denied recovery, construing the statute as implicitly containing a requirement that the refusal be "in some sense arbitrary or
This Court's third occasion to interpret § 596 was McCrea v. United States, 294 U.S. 23 (1935), and, once again, the Court construed the statute narrowly, this time by taking a literal approach. In that case the seaman, citing specific sections of federal legislation, demanded from the shipmaster his discharge, his earned wages, and other benefits. The master was unfamiliar with the cited sections and asked the seaman to meet with him at noon the next day for an informed discussion of the demands. The seaman missed the appointment and left the country without contacting the master. After his return to the United States, the seaman filed an action in which he claimed entitlement to, inter alia, his earned wages and double wages for the delay in payment. The District Court, affirmed by the Court of Appeals, held that the owner of the ship, the United States, was immune from the double-wage provision of § 596 because the double wages constituted
These early interpretations of § 596 dispel any notion that the statute means exactly what it says. The Court has construed the statute "to effect its purpose," Isbrandtsen Co. v. Johnson, 343 U.S. 779, 783 (1952), and, as the early cases demonstrate, the purpose of the statute does not always require the award of double wages in the amount that the statute literally specifies.
Flexibility also has characterized the applications of the statute rendered by the lower federal courts. For decades those courts consistently concluded that Congress intended to allow judicial discretion to play a part in determining the amount of the double-wage recovery.
It was not until 1966 that a contrary reading of the statute was adopted by the Third Circuit in Swain v. Isthmian Lines, Inc., 360 F.2d 81,
The construction permitting the district court to exercise some discretion in tailoring the double-wage award to the particular equities of the case is just as consistent with the legislative history of § 596 as the Court's new literal approach to this statute. In 1872, when Congress authorized the recovery of additional wages by seamen who were not paid within five days of their discharge, it used the word "shall" to make it clear that such a recovery must be awarded, but it allowed the district courts a limited discretion in setting the amount of such recovery.
Subsequent amendments to the statute did not remove the requirement that some recovery "shall" be awarded, but did modify both of the limits on the judge's discretion. With respect to the wage rate, Congress first specified that it should
The unremarkable change would amount to nothing more than a removal of the narrow 10-day limit on the scope of the judge's discretion. The word "shall" would continue to do nothing more than require some recovery in an amount to be fixed by the judge, but in recognition of the reality that seamen might be stranded for more than 10 days, the recovery period could extend beyond 10 days. This sort of unremarkable change is consistent with the purpose of the statute,
The Court's construction of the amendment is, however, both drastic and dramatic. Instead of effecting a modest enlargement of the judge's discretion to do justice in these cases, the Court's construction effects a complete prohibition of judicial discretion. Instead of permitting recoveries for a period somewhat longer than 10 days, the amendment is construed as a command that even when the unresolved dispute persists for two or three years without any special hardship to the seaman, an automatic recovery must be ordered for the entire period regardless of the equitable considerations that may arise after the shipmaster's initial mistake has been made. Such a major change in both the potential amount of the statutory recovery and the character of the judge's authority would normally be explained in the committee reports or the debates if it had been intended.
It is ironic that the same seven Justices—who today are transfixed by a literal reading of § 596—only a few days ago blithely ignored the text of the Tax Injunction Act in order to reach the conclusion that a federal court has no jurisdiction to entertain a suit for a declaratory judgment against the United States Secretary of Labor to determine whether a federal statute violates the Federal Constitution. California v. Grace Brethren Church, 457 U.S. 393 (1982). The inconsistency in the Court's approach to the task of statutory construction in these two cases is less troublesome, however, than its failure in each case to consider whether its conclusion could reasonably be thought to represent the will of Congress. I am not persuaded that the 1898 amendment, removing the 10-day limit on the scope of the trial judge's discretion, was intended to be read as a command to award $302,790.40 to a seaman who was not paid $412.50 in wages when due.
I respectfully dissent.
"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.
"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."
"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."
"According to the grammatical, natural and unambiguous meaning conveyed by the words of section 4529, R. S., Congress has limited the running of penalties only by a `sufficient cause' for original non-payment of earned wages—a sufficient cause operating to prevent penalties from ever beginning to accrue; once these penalties begin to run, nothing short of actual payment or tender can suffice to prevent the continuous accrual of the per diem penalties." Pet. for Rehearing, 0. T. 1915, No. 323, p. 5.
"[E]very master or owner who neglects or refuses to make payment [of a seaman's earned wages within five days after the seaman's discharge] 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 [five-day period]; and such sum shall be recoverable as wages in any claim made before the court ...." Act of June 7, 1872, ch. 322, § 35, 17 Stat. 269.
"Every master or owner who refuses or neglects to make payment [of a seaman's earned wages within four days of the seaman's discharge] 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 [four-day period], which sum shall be recoverable as wages in any claim made before the court . . . ." Act of Dec. 21, 1898, § 4, 30 Stat. 756.
The 1915 amendment substituted "two days' pay" for "one day's pay." See Act of Mar. 4, 1915, § 3, 38 Stat. 1164-1165.
"The purpose, or at least the predominant one, was, not punishment of the master or owner, but compensation to the seaman. Delay means loss of opportunity to ship upon another vessel. It means hardship during the term of waiting, the sufferer often improvident, and stranded far from home. `In all fairness he should recover more than the amount due him for wages earned' (Calvin v. Huntley, 178 Mass. 29, 32)." Cox v. Lykes Brothers, 237 N.Y. 376, 379, 143 N. E. 226, 227 (1924).
The District Court's award in this case, tolling the period for computing the double wages on the date petitioner obtained employment with another seagoing vessel, was also perfectly consistent with the statutory purpose.