In June 2014, most miners and widows were unrepresented before the Department of Labor’s Benefits Review Board (the Department’s appellate body which reviews the decisions of Administrative Law Judges in federal black lung benefits cases).
The Board decided 26 black lung cases in June (list of cases here). Of these 26, only 11 (42%) included briefs filed on behalf of the miner or widow.
It is common knowledge that many miners and widows have to work their way through the federal black lung benefits system without a lawyer or lay representative, but it is striking that last month in 58% of appellate cases, no one filed a brief on behalf of the claimant.
The vast majority of these cases were awards of benefits that were being appealed by the coal company responsible for payment. In most cases, the Board affirmed the award, but three cases resulted in an award being vacated.
There is no practical way short of reviewing the records in each case to know whether an experienced representative would have made a difference, but it is worrisome that awards of benefits to miners and widows (issued by administrative law judges after formal adjudications) are being vacated without someone to represent the claimants’ interests.
It is not clear whether June is an outlier or this is a sign of things to come. To use May 2014 as a comparison, in May the Board decided 29 cases, in which 18 (62%) included a brief filed on behalf of the claimant. June is thus higher, but in both months a significant number of claimants are proceeding without representation.
This is an issue worth looking into further so that we can understand why the legal needs of these claimants are being underserved and what could be done to make sure that miners and widows are treated fairly in the black lung system.
We invite your comments below to start a conversation about this data and what should be done.