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Mingo Logan Coal Company v. Owens, No. 11-2418

Decided: July 31, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the Benefits Review Board, awarding benefits to the estate of Dallas Owens.

Before developing a severe breathing disorder, Owens worked in West Virginia coalmines for nearly 30 years, the last ten of which he spent as an electrician for Mingo Logan Coal Company (“Mingo”). In 2003, as his condition worsened, Owens was forced to quit work. Subsequently, in 2008, Owens filed a claim under the Black Lung Benefits Act. Finding that Owens was eligible for benefits, the claims examiner ordered Mingo to pay him $1,048.10 a month. Mingo contested the award and requested a formal hearing. Following a formal hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) awarded benefits to Owens, finding that the rebuttable presumption that he was totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis arose pursuant to 30 U.S.C. § 921(c)(4) and that Mingo failed to rebut the presumption. The Benefits Review Board (“Board”) affirmed, concluding that the ALJ’s findings were supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ properly explained her findings. Mingo appealed and, before this appeal was heard, Owens died. Owens’ widow continued to pursue his claim on behalf of his estate.

On appeal, Mingo first argued as a preliminary matter that the Board improperly applied to it the rebuttal limitations of § 921(c)(4)—“The Secretary may rebut such presumption only by establishing that (A) such miner does not, or did not, have pneumoconiosis, or that (B) his respiratory or pulmonary impairment did not arise out of, or in connection with, employment in a coal mine”—even though the plain text shows that those limitations apply only when the “Secretary” seeks to rebut the presumption. Turning to the merits, Mingo contended that the ALJ failed to consider the medical evidence in its entirety and failed to provide an adequate rationale in support of her conclusions.

Addressing Mingo’s first contention, the Fourth Circuit concluded that, although the Board purported to subject Mingo to the rebuttal methods applicable to the Secretary in § 921(c)(4), it concluded in substance that no aspect of the presumption was rebutted. Accordingly, because the court found the record showed that § 921(c)(4)’s two methods of rebuttal did not affect the Board’s disposition of the case, it did not address Mingo’s claim that restricting employers to those methods improperly raised its burden on rebuttal. Next, the court addressed Mingo’s contention that the ALJ failed to consider the evidence in its entirety and to provide an adequate rationale in support of her conclusion. Rejecting this contention, the Fourth Circuit found that the ALJ considered all of the evidence that Mingo offered and gave appropriate consideration to the conflicting opinions. Additionally, where expert opinions were in conflict, the court found that the ALJ judge properly explained her decision to give more weight to certain experts over others based on their qualifications and her judgment.

Full Opinion

-W. Ryan Nichols