On May 1, 2014, in Collins v. Pond Creek Mining (decision here) the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit awarded black lung benefits to Nora Collins, a widow who filed her claim for survivor benefits in 1997. Although much of the court’s opinion is fact-intensive, because the court designated the opinion as published, the court’s analysis of why the ALJ erred in weighing the medical evidence is helpful precedent for survivors seeking black lung benefits.
Nora Collins is the widow of Johnnie Collins, a coal miner who worked for 36 years and who was awarded federal black lung benefits in 1988. In 1997, Mr. Collins passed away and Mrs. Collins sought survivor benefits. (Because Mrs. Collins claim was filed before the 2005 effective date of the “automatic entitlement” provision of the Affordable Care Act’s Byrd Amendments, Mrs. Collins had to prove that Mr. Collins’s death was due to black lung.)
In the nearly 17 years since filing her claim, the claim has moved up and down the administrative system with a favorable Fourth Circuit decision on whether Mr. Collins’s prior claim established the existence of pneumoconiosis, see Collins v. Pond Creek Mining, 468 F.3d 213 (4th Cir. 2006). (Note that the 2006 decision was written by Judge King, who also a member of the most recent panel.)
Via a published opinion written by Judge Wilkinson and joined by Judges King and Floyd, the Fourth Circuit again ruled in favor of Mrs. Collins, holding that the ALJ erred because:
- the opinions of Mr. Collins’s treating pulmonologist and the Department of Labor’s physician that Mr. Collins death was hastened by pneumoconiosis were well-reasoned and well-documented, and
- the portions of the company’s physicians’ opinions which said that Mr. Collins death was due to COPD should not have been disregarded just because those physicians considered the COPD to be due to smoking rather than coal mine dust.
As to the first holding, the court’s reasoning emphasized that extra weight is to be given to treating physicians and medical opinions that correctly diagnose pneumoconiosis. The court distinguished its previous decision in Bill Branch Coal Corp. v. Sparks, 213 F.3d 186 (4th Cir. 2000) and explained that Mr. Collins’s treating physician’s opinion was not conclusory because it was based on “copious treatment notes” and “first-hand observations of the damage the coal-dust-triggered pulmonary disability inflicted upon his patient.”
The court also held that the ALJ should have recognized that two of the company’s experts recognized that COPD played a role in Mr. Collins’s premature death, even though they believed that Mr. Collins’s COPD was entirely caused by cigarettes. Because the court had held in 2006 that Mr. Collins’s COPD was related to his coal mine dust exposure, the court said the ALJ should have disregarded the portions of the opinions about the causation of COPD while using the portion about the causation of death. In other words, the ALJ should have used the company’s experts to undermine the company’s position.
After determining that the ALJ erred in weighing the medical evidence, the court went a step further—it instructed that benefits should be awarded to Mrs. Collins without further factual development. Typically a reversal by the U.S. Court of Appeals results in a remand so the ALJ or the Board can reconsider its decision, but here the court found this last step to be unnecessary. This appears to reflect the court’s frustration with the lengthy process of Mrs. Collins’s claim. The court stated “Collins was 62 years old when she first filed her claim. She is now 78. We hold, better late than never, that she has satisfied the test for survivor’s benefits.”
The court’s decision is notable for a few reasons, even though it is fact-intensive and turned on the court’s 2006 consideration of Mrs. Collins’s claim.
First, because ALJs are given wide latitude in weighing medical evidence, the court’s reversal of the ALJ’s decision serves as an example that parties will cite in substantial evidence challenges.
Second, the court’s emphasis on the weight to be given to treating physicians will be helpful to miners and widows, especially where the physician keeps extensive treatment notes and bases her opinion upon those notes.
Third, accepting a company physician’s death causation opinion while rejecting the physician’s disease etiology opinion provides for opportunities to use a company’s experts against them. This can be helpful for situations in which there is disagreement among adverse experts.
Congratulations to Leonard Stayton for his dedicated and effective representation on behalf of the Collinses and to the Department of Labor’s appellate litigation team for their success.