Westmoreland Coal Company, Inc. v. Cochran, No. 11-1839

Decided: June 4, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision to award black lung benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act (the “Act”) to Cochran, a former Westmoreland Coal Company (“Westmoreland”) employee, finding that there was sufficient evidence to find that Cochran suffered from “legal pneumoconiosis.”

Plaintiff, Jarrell Cochran worked for the Westmoreland in West Virginia for at least sixteen years. Cochran also smoked cigarettes, consuming about a pack of cigarettes every week. In February of 2008, Cochran filed a claim for black lung benefits under the Act. The Department of Labor awarded benefits, which were affirmed by the ALJ. Under the Act, former coal miners are able to claim benefits by showing that they suffer from the lung disease called pneumoconiosis. One can prove pneumoconiosis by establishing either “legal” or “clinical” pneumoconiosis. “Legal pneumoconiosis” is broader than “clinical pneumoconiosis” and requires a showing of “any chronic lung disease or impairment…arising out of coal mine employment…includ[ing]…any chronic restrictive or obstructive pulmonary disease.” Westmoreland and Cochran presented competing experts at the hearing before the ALJ. The ALJ ultimately sided with Cochran’s expert, finding that his testimony established that Cochran suffered from legal pneumoconiosis.

On appeal, Westmoreland first argued that the expert’s testimony was insufficient to support the ALJ’s finding of legal pneumoconiosis, claiming that his testimony merely established the possibility that coal mine dust contributed to Cochran’s pneumoconiosis. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, finding that the expert’s testimony established that both coal dust and cigarette smoke were causes of pneumoconiosis, supporting the ALJ’s finding of legal pneumoconiosis. Second, Westmoreland argued that the ALJ erred by improperly discounting the testimony of its competing experts based on the court’s reliance on the Act’s preamble. The Fourth Circuit again affirmed the ALJ’s decision, finding that the preamble of the Act was an appropriate consideration. Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit emphasized that the preamble was only one of a number of factors that the ALJ considered in making his decision. The ALJ most heavily discounted Westmoreland’s experts because they failed to address legal pneumoconiosis in their analysis. The court concluded that at its core, the case was simply a battle of the experts, and after thoughtful and reasoned analysis, the ALJ was justified in finding Cochran’s expert more believable. Finally, Westmoreland argued that the ALJ erred by placing the burden of proof on Westmoreland to “rule out coal mine dust as a cause of Cochran’s respiratory impairment.” The Fourth Circuit disagreed, finding that Westmoreland’s reliance on the ALJ’s statement that “it is not established that coal dust did not aggravate [Cochran’s] asthma” was taken out of context. The court found that it was simply a part of the ALJ’s broader analysis and the ALJ properly placed the burden of proof on Cochran to establish the existence of legal pneumoconiosis. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the ALJ’s conclusion that Cochran suffered from legal pneumoconiosis.

Full Opinion

– Wesley B. Lambert

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