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Black Lung Benefits Properly Awarded Even When Disabled Has History of Smoking

Westmoreland Coal Co. v. Cochra
No. 11-1839 (Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, June 4, 2013)

by Anna C. Horevay, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

In Westmoreland Coal Co. v. Cochran, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and the Benefits Review Board (the “Board”) to award black lung benefits to Jarrell Cochran and denied Westmoreland’s petition for review. The Court of Appeals found that the decision of the ALJ properly relied on the Preamble to the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (the “Preamble”) and considered all of the relevant evidence presented.

The Black Lung Benefits Act gives benefits to former coal miners who are totally disabled by pneumoconiosis (or black lung disease). Under the Act, black lung disease takes two forms: clinical and legal. The clinical standard consists of the diseases the medical community recognizes as black lung disease. The legal standard, however, encompasses a wider range of diseases and includes “any chronic lung disease . . . arising out of coal mine employment.” To establish black lung disease under the act, claimants can use medical opinions from physicians.

Mr. Cochran worked in coal mines for at least sixteen (16) years. Over that time, he had various jobs both above and below ground. Additionally, Mr. Cochran smoked approximately one (1) pack of cigarettes per week. In 2008, Mr. Cochran filed a claim for black lung benefits. The Department of Labor awarded benefits to him, payable by Westmoreland. Subsequently, Westmoreland requested a formal hearing before an ALJ.

After a hearing, the ALJ determined that the evidence established that Mr. Cochran suffered from legal black lung disease. In particular, the ALJ credited Mr. Cochran’s expert, Dr. Rasmussen, over Westmoreland’s experts in making his determination. The ALJ noted that Westmoreland’s experts failed to preclude legal black lung disease and that their findings were inconsistent with the scientific evidence in the Preamble. Westmoreland appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Board. The Board affirmed the ALJ’s decision to award Mr. Cochran benefits. In response, Westmoreland petitioned the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for review.

The Court of Appeals began with Westmoreland’s argument that Dr. Rasmussen’s testimony was insufficient to support a finding of legal black lung disease. The Court disagreed as Dr. Rasmussen’s testimony affirmatively asserted that Mr. Cochran’s black lung disease was caused in significant part by his exposure to coal mine dust on the job, despite Mr. Cochran’s history of smoking. The ALJ was thus correct in finding that the coal mine dust exposure need not be the sole cause of Mr. Cochran’s respiratory impairment and that his emphysema was due, in part, to coal mine dust exposure.

The Court of Appeals similarly dismissed Westmoreland’s next argument. The Preamble supports the theory that “dust-related emphysema and smoke-induced emphysema occur through similar mechanisms.” Westmoreland’s experts argued that the new science supported the fact that doctors can now identify whether emphysema was dust-related or smoke-induced. The Court noted that the ALJ did not discredit the opinions of Westmoreland’s experts, but assigned them less weight than Dr. Rasmussen as his findings aligned with the scientific findings of the Preamble.

Further Westmoreland’s experts failed to address the larger scope of legal black lung disease. The Court found that the Premable makes clear that the absence of clinical black lung disease cannot be used to rule out legal black lung disease. The Court ultimately found that this boiled down to a battle of the experts, and that the ALJ is in the best position to resolve that battle. The ALJ did that in providing a detailed order which shows careful consideration of the experts’ qualifications and opinions and underlying science. The Board, therefore, properly affirmed the ALJ’s findings. In sum, the Court found that the ALJ’s decision to award benefits was supported by substantive evidence, rational and consistent with applicable law.

In his dissent, Chief Judge Traxler believed that the ALJ improperly shifted the burden of proof to Westmoreland by imposing upon it the burden of proving that coal dust exposure did not contribute to Mr. Cochran’s black lung disease. Further, Chief Judge Traxler believed that the ALJ improperly discredited Westmoreland’s experts’ opinions based upon the language of the Preamble. In his opinion, both of the experts’ opinions were consistent with the Preamble, despite the ALJ’s findings to the contrary.