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Westmoreland Coal Co. v. Sharpe, No. 10-2327

Decided: August 20, 2012

Westmoreland Coal Company petitioned the Court of Appeals for review after the Benefits Review Board reversed an administrative law judge’s denial of Mae Ann Sharpe’s claim for survivor benefits from her husband under the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. § 932.

William A. Sharpe, a coal miner, was awarded total disability benefits in 1993, and received those benefits until he died in 2000. A week after Mr. Sharpe’s death, his widow, Mae Ann Sharpe, made a claim for survivor’s benefits. Within two months of Mrs. Sharpe’s claim being filed, Westmoreland Coal Company, Mr. Sharpe’s employer, filed a modification request seeking reconsideration of Mr. Sharpe’s 1993 award of benefits.  In 2004, an administrative law judge (ALJ) agreed to modify the 1993 award, retroactively denying Mr. Sharpe’s living miner’s claim and rejecting Mrs. Sharpe’s survivor’s claim.  The Benefits Review Board (BRB) affirmed the ALJ’s decision in 2005.  Mrs. Sharpe petitioned for review and the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded the case for further proceedings, because the ALJ had failed to exercise the discretion accorded to him with respect to the Modification Request.  On remand, the ALJ again denied Mr. Sharpe’s living miner’s claim and Mrs. Sharpe’s survivor’s claim, and the BRB reversed.

In reversing the ALJ, the BRB concluded that retroactively denying Mr. Sharpe’s living miner’s benefits award in order to prevent Mrs. Sharpe’s survivor claim would not render justice under the Black Lung Benefits Act.  The Court of Appeals upheld the BRB’s decision ruling that the ALJ abused his discretion in granting the employer’s modification request, explaining that unlike the BRB’s previous ruling in Sharpe I, the BRB was mindful of the deferential standard of review.  Since the BRB properly concluded that the ALJ was guided by erroneous legal principles and abused his discretion in granting Westmoreland’s modification request, the Court of Appeals held that the BRB was correct to reverse ALJ’s ruling outright, rather than vacating and remanding for further proceedings.  The Court of Appeals further held that the Board appropriately applied the doctrine of offensive nonmutual collateral estoppel to prove the elements of Mrs. Sharpe’s survivor’s claim based on its prior ruling in Collins v. Pond Creek Mining Co.  The Court of Appeals ultimately denied Westmoreland’s petition for review and affirmed the BRB decision denying modification of Mr. Sharpe’s living miner’s benefits award and granting survivor’s benefits to Mrs. Sharpe.

Judge Agee wrote in dissent, arguing that the majority erred by improperly substituting the judgment of the appellate court, in this case the BRB, for that of the ALJ.  Judge Agee further explained that BRB did not adhere to its statutory standard of review that findings of fact in the decision under its review should be conclusive if supported by substantial evidence in the record considered as a whole.  Since BRB did not give proper deference to the ALJ’s decision, Judge Agee argued that Westmoreland’s petition for review should be granted, reversing the BRB’s decision and affirming the ALJ’s decision denying Mrs. Sharpe’s survivor benefits.

Full Opinion

-Nora Bennani