Yesterday the Supreme Court declined to grant certiorari and review the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Buck Creek Coal Co. v. Sexton, 706 F.3d 756 (6th Cir. 2013). (Cert. petition at U.S. Supreme Court Docket No. 13-93). Because the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Buck Creek Coal is favorable to coal miners whose lungs may get worse over time, the Supreme Court’s decision not to grant certiorari is good news to miners.
Buck Creek Coal concerns the effect of a prior denial on a subsequent claim by a miner. The Supreme Court left undisturbed the Sixth Circuit’s holding that a prior denial does not bar a subsequent claim when new evidence shows that the miner’s medical condition has worsened. This is important because the progressive nature of black lung disease means that some miners with black lung get worse over time, so a miner may be eligible for benefits in a subsequent claim even if he was previously found not to be disabled due to black lung.
Buck Creek Coal argued that allowing subsequent claims violates the doctrine of res judicata and undermines the finality of the previous denials. The Association of Bituminous Contractors supported Buck Creek Coal with an amicus brief.
However, the most succinct version of why the company is wrong was provided by Judge Merritt in his opinion for the Sixth Circuit.
“Buck Creek looks as far back as the Theodosian Code, the Justinian Code, Babylonian law, ancient Jewish law, and the trial of the Duchess of Kingston in 1776 to argue that the ALJ recklessly dispensed with thousands of years of law by awarding Mr. Sexton benefits. Buck Creek needed to look only so far as this circuit’s and other circuit’s modern jurisprudence to find that res judicata is not violated by the filing of a subsequent claim under the Black Lung Benefits Act. Sharondale Corp. [v. Ross], 42 F.3d [993,] 998 [(6th Cir. 1994)] (“[T]he doctrine of res judicata is not implicated by the claimant’s physical condition or the extent of his disability at two different times.”).”
Buck Creek Coal Co., 706 F.3d at 759.
Because the Supreme Court denies 99% of certiorari petitions, the Supreme Court’s denial in Buck Creek Coal Co. v. Sexton represents the norm. But the timing of the Supreme Court’s denial suggests that the justices agreed that there was no merit to Buck Creek Coal’s argument. The Supreme Court’s docket shows the petition being denied on January 13 2014, only ten days after briefing was complete on January 3, 2014.
Hopefully the Supreme Court’s denial will bring finality to the issue of finality. Companies simply must accept that miners can succeed in subsequent claims.