Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the denial of a widow’s claim and the claim that the miner filed before he died. The court’s decision has minimal precedential weight because the unpublished opinion was limited to the question of whether substantial evidence existed to support the ALJ’s denial of benefits. The decision is a reminder of the difficulty in winning substantial evidence arguments before the U.S. Courts of Appeals. However, the ALJ’s underlying decisions shows that even surface miners with relatively short exposure histories can get black lung.
In Padagomas v. Director, OWCP, Judge Fisher wrote a decision (available here) joined by Judges Hardiman and Roth.
The case concerned two related claims: a claim filed by Edward J. Padagomas (who worked for 3 years in Pennsylvania surface-mine employment from 1956 to 1959) and a survivor’s claim filed by his widow Patricia A. Padagomas. The case fundamentally came down to a disagreement between two doctors. Mrs. Padagomas submitted evidence by Dr. Sander Levinson who believed that Mr. Padagomas’s pneumoconiosis was disabling and contributed to this death. The Director, OWCP submitted evidence by Dr. Samuel Spagnola who found that the breathing tests were unreliable and did not believe that Mr. Padagomas’s death was hastened by pneumoconiosis.
Although the ALJ found that the x-ray evidence showed that Mr. Padagomas had coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, the ALJ credited the opinion of Dr. Spagnola over that of Dr. Levinson and concluded that Mrs. Padagomas failed to prove that Mr. Padagomas’s black lung resulted in disability or death. (ALJ decision here.) The Board affirmed this decision. (Board decision available here.)
The Third Circuit agreed with the Board that the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence.
Regarding disability, the court held that the ALJ properly found that Dr. Spagnola’s validity opinion gave a reason to discount the pulmonary function studies and that the arterial blood gas studies were entitled to diminished weight because they were drawn during acute medical events including congestive heart failure. Because the breathing tests and blood gas tests were entitled to little weight, then Dr. Levinson’s disability opinion was based on invalid data and did not require a finding of disability.
Regarding the cause of Mr. Padagomas’s death, the court explained:
We are not persuaded that the ALJ erred in discounting Dr. Levinson’s opinion. It is not sufficient for a physician to articulate a conclusion without offering an explanation for that conclusion. Dr. Levinson stated that if Mr. Padagomas “hadn’t had those coal dust accumulations, those speculated nodules in the upper lobes . . . he would have been able to somewhat better weather the storm caused by his heart disease.” Dr. Levinson, however, also acknowledged that Mr. Padagomas’s death was caused by ischemic cardiomyopathy resulting in heart failure, and the pleural effusion, renal failure, and longstanding diabetes also contributed to his death. After that acknowledgment Dr. Levinson still concludes that, “I am also of the opinion that [his] pneumoconiosis was a significant contributing and aggravating factor in the occurrence of his death.” Dr. Levinson also said that pneumoconiosis was a “contributing cause to [the miner’s] cardiac arrhythmia and congestive heart failure.” Dr. Levinson’s opinion is the only evidence provided linking pneumoconiosis to Mr. Padagomas’s death. It was appropriate for the ALJ to conclude that Dr. Levinson’s opinion was not persuasive due to its lack of explanatory power. Including the death certificate’s failure to mention pneumoconiosis, and Dr. Levinson’s insufficiently reasoned opinion, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision to deny Mrs. Padagomas’s survivors’ claim.
slip op. at 8–9 (internal citations omitted, alterations in original).
As mentioned, Padagomas will have little precedential value as it is a fact-bound, unpublished decision in a circuit that gives little weight to unpublished decisions. Two things stand out about the decision though: First, Padagomas is simply another reminder of how difficult it is to win a substantial argument before the U.S. Courts of Appeals. Second, as the ALJ found, even though Mr. Padagomas only had three years of surface-mine employment, his x-rays still proved that he had black lung. This finding serves as a reminder that in some individuals, even a relatively short exposure in conditions that were not traditionally thought to put miners at risk for black lung can result in chronic lung disease.
Mrs. Padagomas was represented by George E. Mehalchick of Lenahan & Dempsey (Scranton, PA).
The Director, OWCP was represented by Sean Bajkowski and Helen Cox of the Department of Labor’s Solicitor’s Office.