Which Federal Circuit’s Law Applies to a Defense Base Act Claim?

In the United States, there are twelve Courts of Appeals which are known as “circuit courts.”  All fifty states, as well as the District of Columbia, are divided into various circuits.  These courts are intermediate appellate courts; the last step before the Supreme Court of the United States.  Over time, each circuit court has developed its own identity and reputation.  The circuit courts can decide issues differently, sometimes because of geographical, political or ideological differences.  When a circuit court decides an issue differently from a court in another circuit, a “split” is created.  Lower courts in a circuit (i.e. district courts) are bound by their appellate court’s decisions.  Those same courts are not bound by another circuit court’s decision.

In the Defense Base Act (“DBA”) context, the applicable federal circuit law is determined by statute.  Section 1653(b) of the DBA states: “Judicial proceedings provided under sections 18 and 21 of the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act in respect to a compensation order made pursuant to this Act shall be instituted in the United States district court of the judicial district wherein is located the office of the deputy commissioner whose compensation order is involved if his office is located in a judicial district, and if not so located, such judicial proceedings shall be instituted in the judicial district nearest the base at which the injury or death occurs.”

If the office of the deputy commissioner (now known as ”district director”) controls which circuit’s caselaw to apply, then only a limited numberof circuit’s will have precedent in DBA cases because there are only a limited number of district director offices.  As seen on the Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation’s contact page, there are offices in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Norfolk, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Houston, San Francisco, Honolulu, Seattle and Longbeach, with the National Office situated in Washington, D.C.  Under this scheme, only the legal intreptations from the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 9th and 11th circuits would constitute potentially precedential caselaw in DBA claims, to the exclusion of the interpretations made by the 3rd, 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th and D.C. circuits.  For claimants residing in twenty-seven States and the District of Columbia, their cases will be analyzed using the law of a federal circuit court that is not their own.   An injured longshoreman and an injured DBA claimant living next door to each other in Chicago, Illinois, will have different interpretations from different circuits–the 5th and the 7th–applied to their claim.  As such, it is important to know the interpretations of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act and the DBA that are employed by the applicable circuit.

Below is a chart that identifies the federal circuit for each State.  To the far right, the chart identifies the controlling circuit caselaw based on the district director’s office.  If the State’s name is written in “all caps,” then the typical circuit law that applies to that state has been displaced by the DBA’s judicial proceedings statute.

State Federal Circuit Applicable DBA Circuit Law Based On District Director’s Office
Alabama 11th 11th – Jacksonville Office
Alaska 9th 9th – Seattle Office
Arizona 9th 9th – San Francisco Office
ARKANSAS 8th 5th – New Orleans Office
California 9th 9th – San Francisco or Long Beach Office
COLORADO 10th 9th – Seattle Office
CONNECTICUT 2nd 1st – Boston Office
DELAWARE 3rd 4th – Baltimore Office
D.C. D.C. 4th – Baltimore Office
Florida 11th 11th – Jacksonville Office
Georgia 11th 11th – Jacksonville Office
Hawaii 9th 9th – Honolulu Office
Idaho 9th 9th – Seattle Office
ILLILNOIS 7th 5th – Houston Office
INDIANA 7th 5th – Houston Office
IOWA 8th 5th – Houston Office
KANSAS 10th 5th – Houston Office
KENTUCKY 6th 11th – Jacksonville Office
Louisiana 5th 5th – New Orleans Office
Maine 1st 1st – Boston Office
Maryland 4th 4th – Baltimore Office
Massachusetts 1st 1st – Boston Office
MICHIGAN 6th 5th – Houston Office
MINNESOTA 8th 5th – Houston Office
Mississippi 5th 5th – New Orleans Office
MISSOURI 8th 5th – Houston Office
Montana 9th 9th – Seattle Office
NEBRASKA 8th 5th – Houston Office
Nevada 9th 9th – San Francisco Office
New Hampshire 1st 1st – Boston Office
NEW JERSEY 3rd 2nd – New York Office
NEW MEXICO 10th 5th – Houston Office
New York 2nd 2nd – New York Office
NORTH CAROLINA 4th 11th – Jacksonville Office
NORTH DAKOTA 8th 9th – Seattle Office
OHIO 6th 5th – Houston Office
OKLAHOMA 10th 5th – Houston Office
Oregon 9th 9th – Seattle Office
PENNSYLVANIA 3rd 4th – Baltimore Office
Rhode Island 1st 1st – Boston Office
SOUTH CAROLINA 4th 11th – Jacksonville Office
SOUTH DAKOTA 8th 9th – Seattle Office
TENNESSEE 6th 11th – Jacksonville Office
Texas 5th 5th – Houston Office
UTAH 10th 9th – Seattle Office
VERMONT 2nd 1st – Boston Office
Virginia 4th 4th – Norfolk Office
Washington 9th 9th – Seattle Office
West Virginia 4th 4th – Baltimore Office
WISCONSIN 7th 5th – Houston Office
WYOMING 10th 9th – Seattle Office
Jon Robinson
As a Member at Mouledoux, Bland, Legrand & Brackett, Jon Robinson focuses his practice on the representation of employers and carriers in matters arising under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, the Defense Base Act, and the War Hazards Compensation Act. He can be contacted at (504) 595-3000 or by e-mail at jrobinson@mblb.com.
Jon Robinson