Today in West Virginia CWP Fund v. Gump, (decision here), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a miner’s award of black lung benefits and rejected the company’s argument that the ALJ improperly limited its ability to rebut the fifteen-year presumption. This per curiam decision is unpublished, so it is of limited precedential weight, but it contains language which if favorable to miner’s and undercuts an argument that is currently in vogue among attorneys for coal companies.
Ardis J. Gump worked as a coal miner for thirty-four years but eventually became disabled to the point that he could not shower or climb steps without losing his breath. Although his first five claims for federal black lung benefits were unsuccessful, in his sixth claim (filed in 2008) all physicians agreed that Mr. Gump was disabled. Because Mr. Gump had more than fifteen years of coal mine employment and suffered from a disabling pulmonary condition, under the fifteen-year presumption the ALJ presumed his disability was caused by pneumoconiosis arising from his coal mine employment.
The ALJ then considered whether the company had rebutted the presumption by showing that Mr. Gump did not have pneumoconiosis or that his disability did not arise out of his coal mine employment. The ALJ concluded that the company’s physicians did not present compelling evidence to rebut the presumption and awarded Mr. Gump benefits.
On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, the company argued that the ALJ’s decision violated the Supreme Court’s decision in Usery v. Turner Elkhorn Mining Co. by limiting the company’s rebuttal options to the existence of pneumoconiosis and the causation of the disability and did not provide it an opportunity to show that Mr. Gump’s pneumoconiosis did not arise from his coal mine employment.
The Fourth Circuit (by a panel made up of Circuit Judges Gregory & Floyd and Senior Circuit Judge Davis) rejected this argument. It stated that even though the ALJ’s analysis was structured in a two-prong manner, substantively the ALJ addressed all three of the possible means of rebuttal. In note 2, the court also clarified why this is not a problem in legal pneumoconiosis cases:
It is unexceptional that the ALJ chose to collapse his analysis of presence of disease (element 1) and disease causation (element 2). Since at least 1978, the definition of legal pneumoconiosis has been defined as “any chronic lung disease or impairment . . . arising out of coal mine employment.” 20 C.F.R. § 718.201(a)(2) (emphasis added). Thus, if an ALJ finds that legal pneumoconiosis has been established (1), it logically flows that the miner’s qualifying disease was caused by coal mining (2).
The Fourth Circuit also held that the ALJ’s decision to discount the opinions of the company’s doctors was supported by substantial evidence and free from legal error.
This decision is good for miners and weakens the argument that Judge Niemeyer’s concurring opinion in Mingo Logan Coal Co. v. Owens, 724 F.3d 550, 559 (4th Cir. 2013) signals a material issue that warrants appeals of black lung benefits awards.
Congratulations to Heath M. Long for his work on behalf of Mr. Gump and Sean Gregory Bajkowski for his work on behalf of the Department of Labor.