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Res Judicata Does Not Bar Subsequent Suits with a New Cause of Action under the Black Lung Benefits Act

Union Carbide Corp. v. Richards, et al.
No. 12-1294 (Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit July 5, 2013)

by Anna C. Horevay, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In this case concerning survivors’ benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act (“BLBA”), the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) amended the BLBA, creating a new claim for survivors’ benefits. As a result, the doctrine of res judicata did not bar Claimants’ subsequent claims under this new theory of law.

The BLBA provides lifetime disability benefits for coal miners and provides survivors’ benefits to certain dependents. In 2010, the ACA reinstated BLBA’s automatic survivors’ benefits for claims filed after January 1, 2005, that were pending on or after the ACA’s March 23, 2010 enactment. Under the amendment, survivors can prove their entitlement to benefits simply by showing that the miner was determined to be eligible to receive BLBA benefits at the time of his death, as opposed to having to prove miner’s death was caused by pneumoconiosis. The BLBA’s amendment was silent as to whether survivors whose previous claims were denied may now receive benefits by filing a subsequent claim under the amendment.

In their first proceedings, both Claimants failed to prove that their husbands’ death was due in part to pneumoconiosis, and were denied survivors’ benefits. One (1) Claimant’s subsequent claim for benefits was pending when Congress enacted the ACA, while the other Claimant did not file her subsequent claim until after Congress enacted the ACA. Upon review of both subsequent claims, Department of Labor Administrative Law Judges awarded survivors’ benefits to both, and the Department of Labor Benefits Review Board affirmed both decisions.

The Court held that res judicata was not implicated by the Claimant’s subsequent claims under the amendment to the BLBA, as they did not require relitigation of the prior findings that the miners’ deaths were not due to pneumoconiosis. Res judicata requires three (3) elements: (1) a previous final judgment on the merits, (2) an identity of the cause of action in both the earlier and the later suit, and (3) an identity of parties or their privies in the two (2) suits. Because Congress created a new condition of entitlement (and a new cause of action) unrelated to whether the miner died due to pneumoconiosis, res judicata could not be established as there was no identity of the cause of action. Because of the change in the law, the new claims were never previously adjudicated; therefore, litigation of the Claimants’ subsequent claims seeking benefits under the amendment did not run the risk of upsetting previously adjudicated claims or creating inconsistent judgments. As both Claimants met the criteria for survivors’ benefits under the amendment and res judicata did not bar their claims, Claimants were entitled to automatic derivative benefits under the BLBA.


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