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Peabody Coal Co. v. Director

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

December 23, 2014

Peabody Coal Company, Petitioner,
v.
Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, United States Department of Labor; Eva Elizabeth Hill, Respondents.

         On Petition for Review of an Order of the Benefits Review Board. No. 12-0026 BLA.

          DAUGHTREY, COOK, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.

          SUTTON, J. (pp. 3-8), delivered a concurrence to the denial of rehearing en banc in which KETHLEDGE, J., joined. DONALD, J. (pp. 9-14), delivered a separate opinion.

          ORDER

          BERNICE BOUIE DONALD, Circuit Judge.

         The court received a petition for rehearing en banc. The original panel has reviewed the petition for rehearing and concludes that the issues raised in the petition were fully considered upon the original submission and decision of the case. The petition then was circulated to the full court.[**] No judge has requested a vote on the suggestion for rehearing en banc.

         Therefore, the petition is denied.

         CONCURRENCE

          SUTTON, Circuit Judge, concurring in the denial of en banc review, in which KETHLEDGE, J., joined. Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211 (1995), holds that Congress may not enact legislation that reopens final judgments entered by an Article III court without trespassing on the separation-of-powers guarantees of the Constitution. In today's case, our court has construed a provision of the Black Lung Benefits Act in a way that seems to do just that. Based on an amendment to the Act-included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA), Pub. L. No. 111-148, § 1556, 124 Stat. 119, 260-the court has transformed a final judgment rejecting a claim for survivor benefits into a judgment granting them. That does not happen every day. And, with respect, it should not have happened here, both because the statute does not lend itself to this interpretation and because the Constitution prohibits it. That does not mean full court review is necessary or for that matter a good idea, particularly since three other appellate courts have gone down the same trail. See Jim Walter Res., Inc. v. Dir., Office of Workers' Comp. Programs, 766 F.3d 1333 (11th Cir. 2014); Marmon Coal Co. v. Dir., Office of Workers' Comp. Programs, 726 F.3d 387 (3d Cir. 2013); Union Carbide Corp. v. Richards, 721 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2013). But it may mean that other courts should pause before heading down this path.

         Arthur Hill worked in the coal mines of western Kentucky for roughly forty years. He smoked nearly the whole time. In 1987, the Department of Labor found him disabled due to black lung disease and awarded benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act. We affirmed the award. See Peabody Coal Co. v. Hill, 123 F.3d 412 (6th Cir. 1997). A few years later, Hill developed pancreatic cancer, and he died in 2000. His widow Eva applied for black lung survivor benefits. Using the then-applicable causation standard, the Department denied her claim because cancer unrelated to black lung caused her husband's death. We again affirmed. See Hill v. Peabody Coal Co., 94 F.App'x 298 (6th Cir. 2004). Eva did not file a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, and the judgment became final.

         In 2010, Congress made it easier for the survivors of deceased miners to obtain benefits under the Act in the course of enacting the ACA. It created a new causation standard, one providing that, if a miner was receiving black lung benefits at the time of his death, then he presumptively died from black lung disease, eliminating the wife's burden of establishing the causation of death, automatically granting her survivor benefits, and sparing her the need to file any claim at all. All agree that the amendments apply to new requests for survivor benefits and to pending claims filed after January 1, 2005.

         The question is whether the law should apply to claims finally resolved before January 2005 and refiled after the 2010 effective date. Our court and three others permit such refiled claims. That permits the Department of Labor effectively to reopen claims denied under the old law, to apply the new law to those claims, and to require the miner's employer to provide benefits for those previously rejected claims under the new relaxed causation standard. See Peabody Coal Co. v. Dir., Office of Workers' Comp. Programs, 577 F.App'x 469, 470 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Consolidation Coal Co. v. Maynes, 739 F.3d 323 (6th Cir. 2014)). Under this interpretation, the ACA effectively says this: "Any action for survivor benefits that previously was dismissed for lack of causation but that would have been granted under the new rules shall be reinstated on motion by the claimant, no matter how long ago an earlier denied claim became final." See Consolidation Coal, 739 F.3d at 327-28. I doubt whether this rule honors the statute it purports to interpret or that it comports with the Constitution.

         First things first: The language of the 2010 amendment does not support this interpretation, much less require it. Through the ACA, Congress made two substantive changes to the Black Lung Benefits Act. Section 1556(a) reinstates the pre-1981 rule that disabled miners who worked underground for at least fifteen years presumptively suffer from black lung disease. Pub. L. No. 111-148 (2010). And § 1556(b) reinstates the pre-1981 rule that survivors of those miners receiving benefits while alive are automatically entitled to benefits and do not even need to file a claim to obtain them. Id. Congress directed the Department of Labor and the courts to apply both changes "to claims filed . . . after January 1, 2005, that are pending on or after the date of enactment of this Act, " which is March 23, 2010. Id. § 1556(c). According to our court, "Congress was silent as to whether persons . . . whose claims had been denied under the previous eligibility framework[ ] could receive benefits by filing a subsequent claim." Consolidation Coal, 739 F.3d at 326.

         How does the language of the statute count as silence on the issue at hand? Congress said that "pending" claims (if filed after January 1, 2005) and claims filed "after" passage of the Act would receive the benefit of the changes. Congress created a dichotomy between "pending" claims and other claims. Yet the Courts of Appeals' prevailing interpretation takes the claims-filed-after-enactment language to refer to any and all claims, whether previously rejected or not. If true, that would mean that the "pending" claim side of the dichotomy does no work. With respect to applicants whose claims were finally rejected before the amendment took effect in 2010, they could simply file new claims after 2010, as happened here. With respect to applicants whose claims were pending at the time of enactment and yet were filed before January 2005, they could simply dismiss the claims and refile new claims. This problem evaporates if we accept the most natural reading of the language-that it applies to claims pending on the day of enactment (if filed after January 2005) and claims filed after the day of enactment.

         That is one flaw in the prevailing interpretation; here is another. Legislation is presumed to be prospective unless Congress expressly makes it retroactive. Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244, 277-80 (1994). If we apply the amendments to all subsequent claims, that transforms Congress's express provision for, and limits on, retroactivity in § 1556(c)-making them applicable only to claims pending on the date of enactment and filed after January 2005- into a meaningless gesture and mocks the presumption against retroactivity in the process. Why, to repeat, restrict the new law to pending claims filed after a certain date if all it takes to avoid the cutoff is to reapply?

         Even if we put all of that to the side, and even if we assume that Congress was silent about whether to apply the 2010 amendments to new claims, that does not support the prevailing interpretation. Silence or what comes to the same thing-ambiguity-about this issue requires avoiding, not instigating, a conflict between the statute ...


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