Fourth Circuit awards black lung benefits to Mingo Logan Coal miner

By Nathan Bass | Sep 4, 2013


RICHMOND, Va. – A federal appeals court has awarded benefits to a miner after ruling that Mingo Logan Coal Company failed to defeat the rebuttable presumption that a totally disabled coal miner with lung disease and 15 or more years of employment is entitled to benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit released its opinion on July 31. Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote the opinion and judges Andre M. Davis and Albert Diaz joined. Niemeyer also wrote a concurring opinion.

Dallas R. Owens worked in West Virginia coal mines for almost 30 years, spending the last 10 of those years working as an electrician in Mingo Logan Coal Company mines. In 2003 he stopped working after developing difficulty breathing.

His breathing issue got worse over time and in April 2008, Owens filed a claim under the Black Lung Benefits Act, which awards benefits to coal miners who are totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis.

The BLBA’s implementing regulations define the term "pneumoconiosis" to include not only those diseases medically recognized as “clinical pneumoconiosis," but also “any chronic lung disease or impairment and its sequelae arising out of coal mine employment, also known as ‘legal pneumoconiosis.’”

Owens was initially found eligible for benefits by a claims examiner but Mingo Logan contested the award, requesting a formal hearing with an administrative law judge. The ALJ conducted the hearing on Dec. 9, 2009, and awarded Owens benefits in October 2010.

The ALJ concluded that because Owens had more than 15 years of underground coal mine employment and because the evidence established that he was totally disabled by a respiratory impairment, the rebuttable presumption of § 921(c)(4) arose that he was totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis. More significantly, the ALJ found that Mingo Logan had not rebutted the presumption and awarded benefits.

On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, Mingo Logan contended that the ALJ and the Benefits Review Board had applied the wrong legal standard in evaluating whether it had met its rebuttal burden by limiting it to the two methods that the text of the statute specifies are the only means by which “the Secretary may rebut the presumption.”

30 U.S.C. § 921(c)(4) states, in part, that “The Secretary may rebut such presumption only by establishing that (A) such miner does not, or did not, have pneumoconiosis, or that (B) his respiratory or pulmonary impairment did not arise out of, or in connection with, employment in a coal mine.”

Owens and the Director of the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs argued that although the statute does not, by its language, limit “employers” to the two specified methods of rebuttal, the only logical way to rebut the presumption is by these methods and therefore the ALK and the Board articulated the correct legal standard. They argued that the statute’s “rebuttal limitations” were really not limitations at all.

The Fourth Circuit agreed with Owens and the director.

“In short, while the Benefits Review Board purported to subject the employer to the rebuttal methods applicable to the Secretary in § 921(c)(4), it concluded in substance that no aspect of the presumption was rebutted, affirming the ALJ’s finding that Mingo Logan failed to show that Owens had only mild pneumoconiosis that did not substantially contribute to his total disability,” Niemeyer wrote.

“Accordingly, because the record shows that § 921(c)(4)’s two methods of rebuttal did not affect the Board’s disposition of this case, we need not address Mingo Logan’s claim that restricting employers to those methods improperly raised its burden on rebuttal.”

Mingo Logan had also contended that “the ALJ had failed to consider the medical evidence in its entirety and failed to provide an adequate rationale in support of her conclusions,” but the court rejected this argument as well.

Niemeyer’s concurring opinion asserted that, although the facts and circumstance of this case led him to the same result as his colleagues, “Mingo Logan’s challenge to the standard for rebutting the § 921(c)(4) presumption should have been addressed.”

Niemeyer argued that there are circumstance is which the board’s “rebuttal limitations” could lead to an erroneous decision.

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