This week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a coal miner’s award of benefits in an unpublished decision, Grayson Coal & Stone Co. v. Teague, 688 F. Appx. 331 (6th Cir. 2017) (slip op. available here).
The principle issue was whether the ALJ sufficiently explained his decision. The Sixth Circuit held that the ALJ’s statement that Mr. Teague’s smoking history is “substantial” was clearly good enough. The ALJ did not need to make a specific finding of exactly how much the miner smoked before analyzing the relative roles of cigarette smoke and coal-mine dust in causing his disabling COPD.
Charles Teague worked as a coal miner in Kentucky on surface mines for 9.22 years from 1978 to 1989. He also smoked cigarettes.
After having one unsuccessful claim from 2002, Mr. Teague filed a subsequent claim in 2010.
On September 18, 2014, the ALJ (Judge Merck) awarded benefits to Mr. Teague. The ALJ found the x-ray evidence to be negative for clinical pneumoconiosis. However, the ALJ credited the opinions of the doctors (particularly Dr. Antoine G. Habre) who said that Mr. Teague’s disabling COPD was due in significant part to this coal-mine employment. Accordingly, Mr. Teague was found to be disabled due to legal pneumoconiosis. (ALJ decision here).
Judge Merck described Mr. Teague’s smoking history as follows:
Claimant testified that he does not currently smoke. He started smoking when he “was a kid” and smoked “on and off until around 1989 or 1990.” He testified that when he smoked, he smoked approximately one-half or three-quarters of a pack per day. He does not think he ever smoked more than one pack per day. Claimant estimated he smoked for approximately twenty-five years. Dr. Forehand reported Claimant smoked one-half of a pack of cigarettes per day, on and off from 1944 to 1995. Dr. Broudy reported Claimant smoked less than or equal to one-half of a pack of cigarettes per day for approximately twenty-five years. Claimant told Dr. Rosenberg he smoked less than one pack of cigarettes per day for at most approximately twenty years. Dr. Gallai reported Claimant smoked one-half of a pack of cigarettes for twenty to twenty-five years, between age fifteen and age sixty two. Dr. Gaillai estimated Claimant had a ten to 12.5 pack-year smoking history. Dr. Habre reported a smoking history of one-half of a pack of cigarettes per day for twenty-five years, or 12.5 pack-years.
Claimant’s reported smoking history is varied. Although it is clear that Claimant smoked cigarettes for a substantial amount of time, due to the contradictions found in the evidence, I cannot make an exact finding on Claimant’s smoking history.
The Benefits Review Board affirmed this award of benefits on July 21, 2015. (BRB decision here).
Sixth Circuit Decision
The Sixth Circuit’s decision (authored by Senior Circuit Judge Merritt and joined by Circuit Judges Batchelder and Clay) affirmed the award of benefits.
The court rejected Grayson Coal’s argument that Judge Merck’s analysis of the smoking history failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act’s requirement that an ALJ provide a statement of findings “and the reasons or basis therefor, on all the material issues of fact” 5 U.S.C. § 557(c)(3)(A).
The court explained:
We agree with the Benefits Review Board that there is no merit to Grayson Coal’s argument that the Administrative Law Judge was required to make a more specific finding. In fact, it appears a more specific finding would have potentially misconstrued the evidence. Instead, the Judge’s decision contained a thoughtful analysis of the consistencies and inconsistencies in the record, and an acknowledgement that the evidence pointed to a “substantial” smoking history. The decision did not lay out an“inaccurate history.” See McCain v. Dir., O.W.C.P., 58 F. App’x 184, 199 (6th Cir. 2003) (citing Risher v. Office of Workers Comp. Program, 940 F.2d 327, 330–31 (8th Cir. 1991)). Nor did the decision fail to explain why the evidence in the record led to its conclusion. The decision made a reasoned and accurate assessment that Teague “smoked cigarettes for a substantial amount of time.” It considered medical evidence that highlighted the significance of this smoking history. The law requires the trier of fact to determine whether the medical evidence before him is sufficiently documented and reasoned, and to weigh the evidence accordingly. See Mosely v. Peabody Coal Co. 769 F.2d 357, 360 (6th Cir. 1985). The Administrative Law Judge in the present case clearly met this burden.
slip op. at 7–8
The court also rejected Grayson Coal’s argument that the ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The court held that “the decision clearly satisfied the ‘substantial evidence standard’ by weighing Dr. Habre’s opinion in light of all of the medical evidence presented and reaching a conclusion supported by ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.'” (slip op. at 8 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). In doing so, the Sixth Circuit said that it was “notable that Dr. Gallai and Dr. Forehand also diagnosed legal pneumoconiosis, but their findings were still given less probative weight.” slip op. at 9 n.2.
Teague is an unpublished case that is basically an analysis of whether this ALJ’s decision was supported by the specific facts of this case. In that sense, its precedential force will be weak.
The court’s holding though on the sufficiency of the ALJ’s finding and explanation regarding smoking could prove notable. While the law is clear that an ALJ must sufficiently explain her decision, the law in unclear on just how much explanation is sufficient. This is always going to be a very fact-dependent inquiry that will vary from case to case. But Teague represents a clear holding that there is no rule that an ALJ must make a specific, quantitative finding of a miner’s smoking history.
This gives ALJs more latitude in cases where the smoking history is varied to simply recognize the variance and find whether or not the history is “substantial.”
Teague can be contrasted with the Tenth Circuit’s decision in Gunderson v. U.S. Department of Labor, 601 F.3d 1013 (10th Cir. 2010). In that case, the court reversed an ALJ who basically said the physicians experts were all well-qualified and declared a tie. (On remand, Mr. Gunderson was awarded benefits and this award was affirmed in 2015 as explained in this post.)
Teague and Gunderson can be read in harmony by understanding that while an ALJ must make a finding on the core medical issues in dispute in a black lung claim, “subissues” such as exactly how much a miner smoked or exactly how tall a miner is do not require the same level of detailed analysis and explanation—even though these subissues can be material to a case.
One other notable thing about Teague. The Sixth Circuit’s decision came less than a week after last week’s oral argument (audio here). This timeline reinforces the court’s statements in its opinion that the two issues were “clearly” in Mr. Teague’s favor.
Charles Teague was represented by Joe Wolfe, Brad Austin, and Victoria Herman of Wolfe, Williams & Reynolds. (Brad Austin argued.)
Grayson Coal & Stone Co. and Liberty Mutual Insurance were represented by John Sigmond, Tim Gresham, and Matthew Moynihan of PennStuart. (Tim Gresham argued.)
(The U.S. Department of Labor did not actively participate before the Sixth Circuit.)