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Marmon Coal Company v. Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

August 8, 2013

MARMON COAL COMPANY; INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS AND MERCANTILE REASSURANCE COMPANY, Petitioners
v.
DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION PROGRAMS, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR; ETHEL D. ECKMAN, Widow of JOHN H. ECKMAN, Respondents

Argued May 15, 2013

On Petition for Review from an Order of the Benefits Review Board, United States Department of Labor (Benefits Review Board No. 11-0766 BLA)

Laura M. Klaus, Esq. Mark E. Solomons, Esq. (ARGUED) Counsel for Petitioners.

Rae Ellen James, Esq. Barry H. Joyner, Esq. (ARGUED) Gary K. Stearman, Esq. United States Department of Labor Office of the Solicitor Counsel for Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, U.S. Department of Labor.

Robert J. Bilonick, Esq. Pawlowski, Bilonick & Long Counsel for Ethel D. Eckman.

Before: SMITH, FISHER and CHAGARES, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

FISHER, Circuit Judge.

Marmon Coal Company and its carrier (collectively, "Marmon") petition for review of a decision by the Benefits Review Board (the "Board") of the U.S. Department of Labor (the "DOL"), which confirmed an award of survivors' benefits to Ethel Eckman under the Black Lung Benefits Act (the "BLBA"), 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq., as amended by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the "ACA"), Pub. L. No. 111-148, § 1556, 124 Stat. 119, 260 (2010). For the reasons stated below, we will deny the petition for review.

I.

A. Statutory Background

The BLBA provides coal miners and their surviving dependents with a means to obtain benefits in compensation for the disabling effects of pneumoconiosis (i.e., black lung disease). There have been several changes in the law with respect to survivors' benefits over the past forty-four years. Congress first provided benefits to surviving dependents of coal miners afflicted with pneumoconiosis through the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 (the "FCMHSA"), 30 U.S.C. § 841 et seq. In 1972, Congress amended the FCMHSA and re-designated Title IV of the Act as the BLBA. The BLBA has been amended numerous times since its original enactment.[1] Until 1982, a deceased miner's dependents could obtain survivors' benefits under the BLBA by showing that the miner's death was substantially caused by pneumoconiosis or by merely showing that the miner had been awarded benefits during his lifetime. Thus, surviving dependents were entitled to benefits automatically if the miner had been awarded benefits during his lifetime, even if pneumoconiosis played no role in the miner's death.[2] See 30 U.S.C. § 922(a)(2) (1970).

In 1981, due to a soaring increase in the number of claims for benefits under the BLBA, Congress prospectively eliminated the automatic entitlement to benefits for surviving dependents. See Black Lung Benefits Amendments of 1981, Pub. L. No. 97-119, 95 Stat. 1635 (1981). Instead, after January 1, 1982, surviving dependents could receive benefits only after proving that pneumoconiosis substantially contributed to the miner's death.

The DOL regulations pertaining to the BLBA, as amended in 1981, distinguish between survivors' "previously filed" claims and survivors' "subsequent" claims. 20 C.F.R. § 725.309(d). A "subsequent" claim is a claim filed "more than one year after the effective date of a final order denying a claim previously filed by the claimant." Id. The DOL comments to this regulation include the following statement:

"Where a previous survivor's claim was denied solely on the basis that the survivor did not prove that the miner died due to pneumoconiosis, an element not subject to change, the survivor may be barred from litigating another claim filed ...

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