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Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers

December 17, 1997

STERLING SMOKELESS COAL COMPANY, PETITIONER,

v.

TAMMY AKERS; DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION PROGRAMS, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, RESPONDENTS.



On Petition for Review of an Order of the Benefits Review Board.

(95-967-BLA)

Before RUSSELL and LUTTIG, Circuit Judges, and CAMPBELL, Senior Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, sitting by designation.

LUTTIG, Circuit Judge

Argued: October 31, 1997

Vacated and remanded by published opinion. Judge Luttig wrote the opinion, in which Judge Russell and Senior Judge Campbell joined.

OPINION

Petitioner appeals from a decision of the Benefits Review Board affirming an ALJ's award of survivor's benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. Section(s) 901 et seq. Because the ALJ failed to consider relevant and material evidence, we vacate and remand the case for further proceedings.

I.

Respondent William E. Akers was laid off by petitioner Sterling Smokeless in 1982. In April 1984, two years after his employment with Sterling terminated, Akers filed a request for benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act (the "Act"). On March 14, 1985, the Department of Labor denied Akers' claim for benefits, and Akers requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Akers subsequently refused to attend several medical examinations scheduled by Sterling, and he ultimately failed to appear at his hearing before the ALJ. Akers then failed to respond to the ALJ's order to show cause why his benefits claim should not be dismissed, and eventually the ALJ dismissed Akers' claim as abandoned on December 22, 1988.

On October 21, 1992, Akers died at the age of 60. His death certificate recited that the immediate cause of death was respiratory failure due to extensive lung cancer. J.A. at 15. Although the evidence in the record before us is somewhat unclear, Akers admitted that he smoked regularly; Sterling contends that Akers smoked between half a pack and a pack of cigarettes every day for thirty to forty years before his death.

The claimant, respondent Tammy E. Akers, married William Akers in 1988, four and a half years prior to his death. She has not remarried since her husband's death. On January 11, 1993, Mrs. Akers filed a claim under the Act for survivors benefits. On May 24, 1993, a Department of Labor claims examiner denied Mrs. Akers' claim on the ground that she could not establish that Mr. Akers' pneumoconiosis -- if it existed at all -- caused or contributed to his death.

Claimant's request for benefits was then forwarded to the Office of Administrative Law Judges, and an ALJ conducted a benefits hearing on October 7, 1994. On January 4, 1995, the ALJ issued a decision and order awarding the claimant's request for survivor's benefits under the Act. The Benefits Review Board subsequently affirmed and Sterling thereafter petitioned this court for judicial review of the agency's award.

II.

Before we can determine whether substantial evidence supports an administrative determination, we must "first ascertain whether the [the agency] has discharged [its] duty to consider all relevant evidence." Jordan v. Califano, 582 F.2d 1333, 1335 (4th Cir. 1978). As we explained in Arnold v. Secretary, Health Education & Welfare, "[u]nless the Secretary has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits, to say that his decision is supported by substantial evidence approaches an abdication of the court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational." 567 F.2d 258, 259 (4th Cir. 1977) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Here, it is clear that, because of two distinct but similar errors of law, the ALJ, and the Board in affirming ...


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