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Appeals court sides with worker in black lung benefits case

Appeals court sides with worker in black lung benefits case

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last week that a doctor's testimony in a black lung benefits case may be disregarded when it disagrees with federal guidelines for the disease.

Abigail P. van Alstyne, a partner at Quinn, Connor, Weaver, Davies & Rouco L.L.P. in Birmingham, Alabama, said the decision is not surprising since the U.S. Department of Labor's Benefits Review Board and federal courts previously have held that physician testimony can be discredited if it contradicts the Black Lung Benefits Act's definition of pneumoconiosis.

But the case notes that the administrative law judge and the Benefits Review Board had “substantial evidence” to determine whether the doctor's testimony should be discounted, said Ms. van Alstyne, who is not involved in the case.

“From the standpoint of lawyers who represent black lung claimants, the decision will probably not change the way we approach cases,” she said in a statement to Business Insurance. “It has always been our contention that a physician who summarily excludes coal mine dust exposure as a possible cause of or contributor to a miner's legal pneumoconiosis has not offered a well-reasoned or supportable opinion.”

In Sunny Ridge Mining Co. Inc. v. Herbert Keathley et al., the suit says Mr. Keathley worked more than 16 years as a coal miner in strip mines. His health deteriorated after he retired from the Ransom, Kentucky-based company and applied for federal benefits.

The law provides indemnity payments and medical benefits to coal miners who are totally disabled from pneumoconiosis caused by their employment. Mr. Keathley argued that he met the law's “15-year presumption” of working more than that number of years in underground mines and said he was totally disabled because of his respiratory disease.

Sunny Ridge, however, rebutted Mr. Keathley's assertion with testimony of a doctor. While the doctor testified that “coal dust may have contributed” to the man's impairment, the doctor also said it was “more likely” caused by “obstructive airways disease from cigarette smoking and some predisposition to asthma or bronchospasm,” according to court records.

The doctor also testified that “bronchitis associated with coal dust exposure usually ceases with cessation of exposure.”

An administrative law judge approved black lung benefits for Mr. Keathley in January 2013, which the federal Black Lung Benefits Review Board affirmed in November 2013

In its appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Sunny Ridge argued that the judge and board incorrectly discredited the doctor's testimony since his opinion was “inconsistent with the regulatory definition of pneumoconiosis” as a “latent and progressive disease that may first become detectable only after the cessation of coal mine dust exposure.”

But in its unanimous ruling last week, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit upheld Mr. Keathley's benefit award and said the administrative law judge correctly discounted the doctor's testimony for contradicting federal regulations on whether pneumoconiosis can be presumed to be caused by a miner's work.