Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel? Balancing Finality and Accuracy for Federal Black Lung Benefits Awards

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel? Balancing Finality and Accuracy for Federal Black Lung Benefits Awards

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Pneumoconiosis, commonly known as "black lung disease," claims the lives of almost 1,500 American coal workers every year.1 Coal workers develop black lung disease simply by breathing the air of their workplace.2 Black lung disease begins deep within the lungs and evolves into a chronic and progressive respiratory disease that may lay dormant for years before totally disabling and killing coal miners.3 For many years, miners suffering from black lung disease battled against a medical community that continually denied the deadly effects of the disease, against coal mine operators willing to sacrifice safety for profits, and against state workers' compensation programs that obstinately turned a blind eye to most mine-related injuries and illnesses.4 By 1969, turmoil over the lack of benefits for those suffering from black lung disease boiled over into "wildcat strikes" that threatened to paralyze the profitable coal industry.5 Faced with a growing public outcry for mine health and safety reforms,6 Congress established the Federal Black Lung Benefits Program.7

The Federal Black Lung Benefits Program, like the disease itself, often proceeds at a tortuously slow pace because of protracted litigation.8 The major factors contributing to the marathon-like benefits process include the imbalance in legal resources between coal miners and coal operators and the mountains of medical evidence presented by each party, such as X-rays, pulmonary function tests, and arterial blood gas tests.9 Claims are bogged down further by a procedural obsession with accuracy that allows miners and operators to relitigate many issues.10 This Note argues against a recent Seventh Circuit decision that discards finality in an overzealous pursuit of accuracy.11

This Note suggests that the United States Courts of Appeals should reject the recent Seventh Circuit decision and continue to value finality in the modification process.12 One must note that traditional notions of finality do not apply in the workers' compensation setting because of the dynamic nature of injury and illness.13 Any workers' compensation system must allow for adjustment of awards in accordance with changes in a worker's condition.14 However, this flexibility should not become counterproductive by forcing claimants and operators to continuously litigate the accuracy of benefits awards or denials. Miners, coal mine operators, the courts, and society will benefit from a black lung benefits program that achieves an accurate, yet final resolution in disability claims.

Part II of this Note discusses the long and intertwined histories of coal mining and the Federal Black Lung Benefits Program. Part III describes the modification procedure that claimants and coal operators may pursue during and after the benefits determination process. Although Congress intended the modification procedure to allow for the adjustment of benefits awards in order to account for changes in a miner's condition or to correct a mistake in a determination of fact, modification often serves as a sword and a shield for parties hoping to stall and harass their adversaries.15 Courts find themselves in the position of balancing two compelling, but competing equitable values: accuracy and finality. Courts must remember the United States Supreme Court's admonition that petitions for modification should be granted only when doing so will "render justice under the act."16 In other words, administrative law judges (ALJs) must weigh the interest in accurate benefits determinations against the interests of judicial efficiency and finality.17 Part IV of this Note criticizes the Seventh Circuit's decision to discard finality in Old Ben Coal Co. v. Director, Office of Workers ' Compensation Programs.18 Part V analyzes the decisions of the United States Courts of Appeals that value finality in the reopening inquiry. Part VI suggests that ALJs examine both accuracy and finality when determining whether reopening for modification promotes justice. …

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