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Media Alerts - Coastal Coal-West Virginia, LLC v. Dept. of Labor -- Fourth Circuit
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October 30, 2015
  Coastal Coal-West Virginia, LLC v. Dept. of Labor -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Error by ALJ Disrupts Trend of Black Lung Benefits Affirmances

Areas of Law: Administrative Law, Employment Law

Issue Presented: Whether the Administrative Law Judge erred in awarding benefits to Richard L. Miller under the Black Lung Benefits Act.

Brief Summary: This case stems from an award of benefits to Richard L. Miller by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and the Benefits Review Board. Miller is a former coal miner suffering from black lung disease. Coastal Coal, opposing the award, filed an appeal for review of the decision. On May 12, 2015, the Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal as untimely. The current decision is in response to Coastal Coal's petition for a rehearing of the May 12, 2015 decision.

Before reviewing the ALJ's decision, the Fourth Circuit examined the issue of timeliness. The court determined that Coastal Coal filed a timely motion for reconsideration and the earlier panel erred when it ruled the petition untimely. The court cited to 20 CFR § 802.221(b), to support its reasoning, stating that the correct date for a filing is the date of postmark as opposed to the date of receipt.

Because the motion was timely, the Fourth Circuit turned to consider whether the ALJ erred in awarding benefits to Richard L. Miller. The court reviewed the decision de novo to determine whether the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is "relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."

To receive benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, , miners must prove four elements: (1) they have pneumoconiosis, (2) the pneumoconiosis came from employment in a coal mine, (3) they have a disabling respiratory or pulmonary condition, and (4) pneumoconiosis is a contributing cause to their respiratory disability. Additionally, an irrebuttable presumption of total disability due to pneumoconiosis attaches when a miner is suffering from lung disease that is diagnosed by a chest x-ray, biopsy or any other means reasonably expected to yield similar results. Although this presumption attaches, the miner still bears the burden of proving he or she has complicated pneumoconiosis.

Coastal Coal argued that the ALJ erred because the ALJ failed to consider conflicting interpretations of Miller's x-rays that had been provided by the doctors. The Fourth Circuit agreed with Coastal Coal. The court found the ALJ erred by not considering the doctors comments because the comments had a direct bearing on whether what was seen on the x-ray was chronic dust disease (pneumoconiosis) or some other disease. The court found substantial evidence did not support the award of benefits because the ALJ relied primarily on the x-rays without considering the comments. The Fourth Circuit granted Coastal Coal's petition for review, vacated the ALJ's award of benefits, and remanded the case for reconsideration of the x-ray evidence of complicated pneumoconiosis.

This decision, along with West Virginia CWP Fund v. Mullins, ends a year-long streak of the Fourth Circuit affirming benefit awards of the Benefits Review Board.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges Shedd, Duncan, and Hamilton

Argument Date: 9/29/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 10/5/2015

Docket Number: No. 14-2012

Decided: Petition for rehearing and review granted, vacated and remanded by unpublished per curiam opinion

Case Alert Author: Diamond Martin, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Jeffrey R. Soukup, JACKSON KELLY PLLC, Lexington, Kentucky, for Petitioner. Otis R. Mann, Jr., Charleston, West Virginia; Sean Gregory Bajkowski, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, Washington, D.C.; Helen Hart Cox, OFFICE OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION PROGRAMS, Washington, D.C., for Respondents.

Author of Opinion: Per Curiam

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Reneé Hutchins

Edited: 10/30/2015 at 01:59 PM by Renee Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 10/30/2015 01:47 PM     4th Circuit  

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