In its current issue, the Catholic University Law Review has published a note written by a law student about the legal standard for survivor’s claims following changes made by the Byrd Amendments to the Affordable Care Act.
Maureen Hughes’s piece “Blue Skies for Black Lung Benefits Act Survivors? Courts’ Interpretations of § 932(l) Following the Enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” provides a useful background on a provision of the Black Lung Benefits Act which entitles a survivor (usually a widow) to black lung benefits when the deceased miner was receiving benefits at the time of his death.
This provision—found at 30 U.S.C. § 932(l)—is commonly referred to as the “automatic entitlement” provision because it automatically entitles some widows to benefits without requiring them to prove the normal requirement: that the miner’s death was due to pneumoconiosis arising from his coal-mine employment. In other words, a widow who is eligible under § 932(l) does not have have to prove that pneumoconiosis caused her husband’s death.
Hughes’s piece details the statutory history of this provision, which was created in 1977, repealed in 1980, and revived via the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
After recounting this history, the Note focuses on four cases which have reached the U.S. Courts of Appeals and resulted in published decisions interpreting the effect of the revived “automatic entitlement” provision. The four cases that the note focuses on are B & G Construction Co. v. Director, OWCP [Campbell], 662 F.3d 233 (3d Cir. 2011), West Virginia CWP Fund v. Stacy, 671 F.3d 378 (4th Cir. 2011), Vision Processing, LLC v. Groves, 705 F.3d 551 (6th Cir. 2013), and U.S. Steel Mining Co. v. Director, OWCP [Starks], 719 F.3d 1275 (11th Cir. 2013). All four cases involved widows who were awarded benefits under § 932(l) following the passage of the Affordable Care Act and in all four cases the Court of Appeals held that the award of benefits was proper.
The Note is premised on a circuit split that Hughes says was created by the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Groves when the Court stated that because the Affordable Care Act did not amend other provisions of the Black Lung Benefits Act, a widow must still prove that her husband’s death was due to pneumoconiosis.
The problem with Hughes’s note is that a split does not exist. The Sixth Circuit case that she focuses on held in favor of the widow and said that the “automatic entitlement” provision is way of proving death due to pneumoconiosis. Thus, courts are in agreement that proof via § 932(l) is sufficient to award a widow survivor’s benefits..
The piece does not talk about two current issues in widow’s claims:
- Whether the underlying miner’s award of benefits that the widow’s claim is derivative of must be a final award that is not subject to appeal (as opposed to an award which is being appealed). For a previous post discussing the Benefit Review Board’s recent published decision in Rothwell holding that the miner’s award need not be final, see here.
- Confusion about the interaction between the fifteen-year presumption and widow’s claims (in short, the 2013 amendments to the regs at 20 C.F.R. § 718.305 clarify that widows can trigger a presumption of death due to pneumoconiosis by providing the miner’s disability and fifteen year of qualifying coal-mine employment, thus some widows can meet their burden by proving disability, not death due to pneumoconiosis).
I don’t mean to be overly critical of Hughes’s piece, and in the end, we agree. Her piece concludes by arguing that the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Groves can be read harmoniously with the others circuits’ decisions. Thus, we arrive at the same place whether you agree with me that a split does not exist or you agree with Hughes that a split exists but the decisions can be read harmoniously. The end result is that widows whose husbands were receiving black lung benefits at the time of their death are entitled to survivor’s benefits under § 932(l).
It’s good to see law students taking an interest in the black lung benefits system and Hughes’s piece contains a useful overview of the “automatic entitlement” provision at 30 U.S.C. § 932(l) that could educate attorneys, lay representatives, and claimants about the provision’s history and current effect in survivor’s claims.
The citation for the piece is Maureen Hughes, Note, Blue Skies for Black Lung Benefits Act Survivors? Courts’ Interpretations of § 932(l) Following the Enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 64 Catholic University Law Review 183 (2014).