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West Virginia CWP Fund v. Director

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 26, 2018

WEST VIRGINIA CWP FUND, as carrier for Mountaineer Coal Development, Petitioner,
v.
DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION PROGRAMS, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR; LONNIE A. SMITH, Respondents.

          Argued: December 5, 2017

         On Petition for Review of an Order of the Benefits Review Board. (15-0522-BLA)

         ARGUED:

          Jeffrey Robert Soukup, JACKSON KELLY PLLC, Lexington, Kentucky, for Petitioner.

          Leonard J. Stayton, Inez, Kentucky, for Respondents.

         ON BRIEF:

          William S. Mattingly, JACKSON KELLY PLLC, Lexington, Kentucky, for Petitioner.

          Before KEENAN, DIAZ, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.

          PAMELA HARRIS, Circuit Judge.

         Petitioner West Virginia Coal Workers' Pneumoconiosis Fund seeks review of a decision awarding black-lung benefits to former coal miner Lonnie A. Smith. An administrative law judge ("ALJ") found that Smith was entitled to benefits under the "fifteen-year presumption" of the Black Lung Benefits Act: Because Smith had developed a totally disabling respiratory impairment after working in underground coal mines for over fifteen years, it could be presumed that he suffers from pneumoconiosis arising from his coal-mine employment; and because Smith's employer could not rebut that presumption, Smith was eligible for benefits.

         The Fund argues that Smith is not entitled to compensation under the Act because no doctor has affirmatively diagnosed him with pneumoconiosis. But that is not how presumptions work. The fifteen-year presumption is expressly intended to relieve certain miners of the "often insurmountable burden" of proving the existence of pneumoconiosis, shifting to the employer the burden of showing that a long-term miner with a disabling respiratory impairment does not in fact suffer from pneumoconiosis. Hobet Mining, LLC v. Epling, 783 F.3d 498, 501-02 (4th Cir. 2015). Because the ALJ's determination that Smith's employer could not make that showing is supported by substantial evidence and consistent with law, we deny the petition for review.

         I.

         A.

         The Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. §§ 901-44, provides benefits to "coal miners who are totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis, " commonly known as black lung disease. 30 U.S.C. § 901(a). In the medical community, pneumoconiosis describes conditions in which the lungs develop a "fibrotic reaction" to coal dust lodged permanently within them. See 20 C.F.R. ยง 718.201(a)(1). The statutory definition of "pneumoconiosis" is broader, reaching not only so-called "clinical pneumoconiosis" but also "legal pneumoconiosis, " or "any chronic lung disease or ...


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