Today in Westmoreland Coal Co v. Stidham (decision here), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a miner’s award in a black lung benefits claim. The decision is not surprising, but is another example of courts deferring to ALJ decisions which find that company doctors’ opinions are not strong enough to rebut the presumptions revived by the Byrd Amendments.
Via an unpublished decision, Circuit Judge Wynn (joined by Circuit Judges Niemeyer and Agee) held that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s weighing of the conflicting medical evidence.
Edward L. Stidham had over 29 years of coal mine employment and everyone agreed that he was disabled due to COPD. As a result, he was entitled to the 15-year presumption that his total disability is due to pneumoconiosis from his time in the mines. The question then was whether the company would prove that Stidham’s time in the mines did not contribute to his COPD.
The ALJ weighed the evidence and determined that—even if cigarette smoking played the main role in Stidham’s COPD—the company’s doctors (Dr. Kirk Hippensteel and Dr. David Rosenberg) “did not articulate a cogent basis for excluding coal mine dust exposure as a causative agent” of Stidham’s pulmonary disability. The ALJ found Dr. J. Randolph Forehand’s analysis to be more persuasive because he acknowledged, consistent with the Department of Labor’s preamble to its regulations, that coal mine dust has an additive effect with cigarette smoking in causing pulmonary disease. (Note: The ALJ gave equal weight to Dr. Forehand’s opinion despite his lack of a board certification in pulmonary medicine because he possessed other credentials including twenty years of experience performing pulmonary examinations for the Department of Labor.)
The Fourth Circuit deferred to the ALJ’s weighing of the medical opinions and held that her decision was supported by substantial evidence. The court stated that the ALJ did not even need to rely upon Dr. Forehand’s opinion (because the company had the burden to rebut the presumption), but that the ALJ did not commit legal error by referring to the preamble of the Department of Labor regulations to explain why Dr. Forehand’s opinion was stronger than those of Drs. Hippensteel and Rosenberg.
This decision does not break new ground, but adds to the chorus of decisions showing the difference that the 15-year presumption makes for disabled miners.
Congratulations to Ryan C. Gilligan for his work on behalf of Mr. Stidham.