Coal Companies Nailed for Black Lung Benefits

     (CN) – Widows of coal miners who developed the black lung are eligible for survivors’ benefits under changes enacted by health care reform, the 4th Circuit ruled.
     Mary Ellen Morgan and Virginia Richardson were both initially denied benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act because they failed to prove that their husbands died of pneumoconiosis, otherwise known as black lung disease.
     Their status changed in 2010, when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act revived a 1978 amendment to the black lung law that allowed coal miners’ dependents to collect survivors’ benefits as long as the miner was himself eligible at the time of his death – regardless of whether pneumoconiosis was the actual cause of death.
     Morgan and Richardson filed new claims with the Department of Labor after the health care law passed, showing successfully that both of their husbands were indeed collecting BLBA benefits when they died.
     Their employers, Union Carbide and Peabody Coal, appealed the awards, arguing that the widows’ new claims were barred by the doctrine of res judicata, Latin for “a matter [already] judged.”
     The Richmond, Va.-based federal appeals court consolidated both cases for review, explaining Morgan and Richardson’s argument that their “subsequent claims” were valid because a “previously unavailable cause of action” – the Affordable Care Act – had changed the criteria on which the widows’ claims would be judged.
     “Countering petitioners’ res judicata arguments, respondents contend that Section 1556 [of the Affordable Care Act] did not merely change the process by which survivors could prove their entitlement, but instead created a new, previously unavailable cause of action,” Judge Albert Diaz wrote for a three-member panel. “Although respondents acknowledge that they presented no new evidence since the denial of their initial claims, they maintain that their subsequent claims rely on facts different from the initial claims, thus rendering res judicata inappropriate.”
     The panel concluded Friday that the benefits review board had gotten it right.
     “Like respondents, we recognize that the record evidence has not changed since the denial of the original claims and that the only relevant change is one of law,” Diaz wrote. “Nevertheless, we conclude that the instant subsequent claims arise from operative facts that are separate and distinct from those underlying respondents’ initial claims, and therefore constitute new causes of action. Whereas respondents’ initial claims turned on whether the deceased miners died due to pneumoconiosis, these subsequent claims concern only whether the miners were determined to be eligible to receive black lung benefits at the time of their deaths – an entirely unrelated factual issue.”
     The miners’ wives had furthermore not been given a “full and fair opportunity to litigate” their claims under the new law, according to the ruling.
     Though often altered, the Black Lung Benefits Act originally granted benefits to dependents of miners who had either died of pneumoconiosis or were “totally disabled” by the disease, the court noted.
     A 1978 amendment bolstered the law by granting “automatic derivative survivors’ benefits” to dependents of miners who were eligible for BLBA benefits at the time of their death. That provision was eliminated in 1981 when Congress limited benefits to dependents of miners whose death was caused “at least in part” by the black lung, according to the opinion.
     That benchmark stood until 2010, when the Affordable Care Act reinstated the 1978 amendment, Diaz explained.
     The Black Lung Benefits Act defines pneumoconiosis as “a chronic dust disease of the lung and its sequelae, including respiratory and pulmonary impairments, arising out of coal mine employment,” the judges explained in a footnote.
     The United Mine Workers of America estimates that 1,500 ex-coal miners “die an agonizing death” from black lung each year.

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