Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Sixth Circuit

No. 20–480. Argued October 13, 2021—Decided January 13, 2022

This case concerns retirement benefits due under the Social Security Act for a retired “military technician (dual status),” 10 U. S. C. §10216, a civilian position formerly held by David Babcock. Like all dual-status technicians, Babcock was required to maintain membership in the National Guard. For his full-time job as a technician, which included work as a test pilot and pilot instructor, Babcock received civil-service pay and Civil Service Retirement System pension payments from the Office of Personnel Management. For his separate National Guard service, which included part-time drills, training exercises, and one active-duty deployment, Babcock received military pay and military pension payments from a different arm of the Federal Government, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. Upon retirement, Babcock applied to the Social Security Administration for benefits. The agency granted Babcock benefits but applied a statutory “windfall elimination provision” and reduced the amount of benefits to reflect Babcock’s receipt of civil-service pension payments for his work as a technician. Babcock sought reconsideration, arguing that the reduction should not apply because the pension payments at issue fell within a statutory exception for payments “based wholly on service as a member of a uniformed service.” The agency denied reconsideration, and Babcock exhausted available avenues of agency review before filing suit in federal court. The District Court upheld the agency’s decision, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

Held: Civil-service pension payments based on employment as a dual-status military technician are not payments based on “service as a member of a uniformed service” under 42 U. S. C. §415(a)(7)(A)(III).

 Retirees receive Social Security benefits based on a progressive formula that awards a percentage of average past earnings. §415(a)(1)(A). The formula originally did not account for earnings from jobs exempt from Social Security taxes, many of which provide separate pensions. In response to this potential windfall, Congress modified the formula to reduce benefits when a retiree receives such a separate pension payment. But Congress left benefits unchanged if the pension payment was “based wholly on service as a member of a uniformed service.” §415(a)(7)(A)(III). The National Guard of the United States is defined as a uniformed service, §410(m), so whether the uniformed-services exception applies depends on whether Babcock’s technician work was service “as” a member of the National Guard.

 It was not. In context, “as” is most naturally read to mean “[i]n the role, capacity, or function of.” American Heritage Dictionary 106. And the statute defines the role, capacity, or function in which a technician serves as that of a civilian: “For purposes of this section and any other provision of law,” a technician “is” a “civilian employee,” “assigned to a civilian position” and “authorized and accounted for as” a “civilian.” 10 U. S. C. §§10216(a)(1), (a)(1)(C), (a)(2). Technicians hired before 1984 like Babcock are members of the “civil service” entitled to pensions under Title 5 of the U. S. Code, which governs the pay and benefits of civil servants. See 5 U. S. C. §2101. Looking to the broader statutory context, technicians possess characteristically civilian rights to seek redress for employment discrimination and to receive workers’ compensation, disability benefits, and compensatory time off for overtime work. These provisions demonstrate that Congress consistently distinguished technician employment from National Guard service.

 That distinction holds true even though Babcock also served at other times in a different capacity as a member of the National Guard. His civil-service pension payments are not based on that service, for which he received separate military pension payments that do not trigger the windfall elimination provision. And a condition of employment, such as the requirement that a technician maintain Guard membership, is not the same as the capacity in which one serves. Babcock contends that the technician job’s qualifications, duties, and dress code render it functionally indistinguishable from National Guard service, and that the Court should interpret “as” more loosely to capture payments for “service [in the likeness of or the same as] a member of a uniformed service.” But the Court finds no reason to adopt a meaning of “as” other than the most natural one, particularly when Babcock’s functional test is inconsistent with the statutory scheme. Determining whether Babcock’s employment was service “as” a member of the National Guard does not turn on factors like whether he wore his uniform to work but rather on how Congress classified the position. Congress’ civilian classification of dual-status technicians for “bookkeeping” purposes controls when it comes to pay and benefits. Pp. 4–7.

959 F. 3d 210, affirmed.  Barrett, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Kavanaugh, JJ., joined. Gorsuch, J., filed a dissenting opinion.