Sixth Circuit Rejects Coal Company’s Procedural Argument in Expedited “Automatic Entitlement” Case (Sextet Mining Corp. v. Whitfield)

Today in Sextet Mining Corp. v. Whitfield (slip opinion available here, opinion also available at 604 F. App’x 442) the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a coal company’s procedural argument against paying black lung benefits for a widow who was awarded under the “automatic entitlement” provision at 30 U.S.C. 932(l).  The decision should have limited precedential value, but it shows that it is not enough to show show a procedural error, rather a party has to show how the error actually prejudiced it.

In an unpublished decision authored by Judge Kethledge (and joined by Circuit Judge Donald and Senior District Judge McCalla), the Court held as follows:

1.)  As the Court previously held in Vision Processing, LLC v. Groves, 705 F.3d 551 (6th Cir. 2013), when a miner dies while receiving black lung benefits, his survivors are automatically entitled under 30 U.S.C. § 932(l).

2.)  Any procedural error by the District Director’s office was harmless and did not prejudice Sextet Mining because the District Director’s office invited Sextet Mining to request a revision to the Proposed Decision & Order and the ALJ issued a show-cause order.

The facts boil down to this:

In 2012, Mr. Whitfield passed away while receiving black lung benefits.  Mrs. Whitfield then filed a survivor’s claim.  The District Director’s office expedited the process by issuing a Proposed Decision & Order awarding benefits under the “automatic entitlement” provision without first notifying Sextet Mining of the claim or allowing it to submit evidence.  The District Director’s office mailed this PD&O to Sextet Mining.  A month later, the District Director’s office issued an order saying that the PD&O was now final.  It mailed this order both to Sextet Mining and its attorney.

At this point, Sextet Mining responded—objecting to the liability determination and asking for a formal hearing before an ALJ.  The ALJ issued a show-cause order, which Sextet responded to by arguing that the District Director’s expedited process violated due process and that 30 U.S.C. § 932(l) did not automatically entitle Mrs. Whitfield.  The ALJ rejected these arguments and the Board affirmed (decision here) noting that Sextet did not dispute its designation as the responsible operator.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the Board’s decision, noting that to obtain relief Sextet Mining needed to show it was “prejudiced on the merits or deprived of substantial rights.”  (quoting Connor v. U.S. Civil Serv. Comm’n, 721 F.2d 1054, 1056 (6th Cir. 1983)).  Because Sextet focused solely on the District Director’s procedures and did not show how it was prejudiced on the merits, the Court rejected Sextet Mining’s challenge.

The decision is good for widows and other survivors because it allow them to begin receiving benefits under an expedited process at the District Director’s office.  If a responsible operator contests its liability, it should do so by seeking revision before the District Director or asserting the merits of its arguments before an ALJ.

Mrs. Whitfield was not represented before the Court of Appeals but was represented by a lay representative, Frances Poole below.  Congratulations to Ms. Poole & Mrs. Whitfield and to Jeffrey Goldberg & Gary Stearman of the Department of Labor’s Solicitor’s Office for their success.

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