Union Carbide Corp. v. Richards, No. 12-1294

Decided:  July 5, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the Department of Labor (“DOL”) Benefits Review Board (the “Board”) awarding automatic survivors’ benefits to miners’ dependents when the miner, at the time of death, was eligible to receive benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act (“BLBA”), even though each claimant previously sought such benefits in unsuccessful prior claims.

In 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) reinstated the BLBA’s automatic survivors’ benefits for claims filed after Jan. 1, 2005, that were pending on or after the ACA’s Mar. 23, 2010 enactment date.  Accordingly, survivors no longer need to show that the miner’s death was caused by pneumoconiosis (“Black Lung”); they need only show the miner was eligible for BLBA benefits at the time of his death.  Respondent survivors in this action both applied for and were denied survivors’ benefits under the BLBA before the ACA amendment.  Both Respondents filed subsequent claims after Jan. 1, 2005 which were either pending during the ACA amendment or filed after the amendment.  Though neither claimant alleged new factual evidence since the denial of their original claims, Administrative Law Judges granted each survivors’ benefits, and in each case the Board affirmed.

The Fourth Circuit considered de novo whether a final decision denying benefits on a prior claim bars a survivor from receiving benefits through a subsequent claim where there have been no new factual developments.  The Fourth Circuit found that the survivors’ subsequent claims do not implicate res judicata because entitlement under the amended BLBA does not require relitigation of the prior findings that the miners’ deaths were not due to Black Lung.  The court determined that Congress created a “new condition of entitlement” which in turn created a “new cause of action” for purposes of res judicata.  The Fourth Circuit went on to note that res judicata does not bar claims that did not exist at the time of the prior litigation.  While acknowledging that new causes of action arise typically due to new factual development, the court stated that changes in the law can create the same effect.  The Fourth circuit differentiated the Respondents’ previous and subsequent claims; the former turned on whether the deceased miners died of Black Lung and the latter turned on the entirely unrelated factual issue of whether the deceased miners were eligible for black lung benefits at the time of their deaths.

Full opinion

– E. Leary McKenzie

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