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Director v. Eastern Associated Coal Corp.

argued: February 16, 1995.

DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION PROGRAMS, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, PETITIONER
v.
EASTERN ASSOCIATED COAL CORPORATION; VIOLET M. O'BROCKTA; UNDERKOFFLER COAL; BENJAMIN STINNER



On Appeal for Review of Orders of the Benefits Review Board, United States Department of Labor. (BRB No. 88-2643 BLA).

Before: Stapelton and Cowen, Circuit Judges, and Huyett, District Judge*fn*

Author: Huyett

Opinion OF THE COURT

Huyett, District Judge :

The Black Lung Benefits Act ("BLBA" or "Act"), 30 U.S.C. §§ 901-945, establishes a comprehensive scheme to compensate coal miners and their surviving dependents for medical problems and disabilities caused by pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease. 30 U.S.C. § 901(a); BethEnergy Mines, Inc. v. Director, OWCP, 32 F.3d 843, 845 (3d Cir. 1994). Pursuant to section 422(g) of the Act, 30 U.S.C. § 932(g), the amount of benefits payable must be reduced by the amount of compensation received under a federal or state workers' compensation law because of death or disability caused by pneumoconiosis.

In the matter before us, we are presented with a conflict between the Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs ("Director") of the Department of Labor ("DOL"), and the Benefits Review Board ("Board") of DOL over this offset provision. Rejecting the Director's position, the Board determined that employers paying federal black lung benefits should offset their payments by the amount of state benefits the miners received from the Commonwealth pursuant to section 301(i) of the Pennsylvania Occupational Disease Act. We must decide whether to defer to the Director's policy that compensation from Pennsylvania general revenues pursuant to section 301(i) of the Pennsylvania Occupational Disease Act does not reduce the miner's entitlement to federal benefits. Although we disagree with the Board's Conclusion that Congress's intent is clear from the statute, we conclude that the Director's interpretation of the pertinent federal regulations is plainly erroneous and inconsistent with the regulations. We deny the Director's petition for review.

I. Regulatory Structure

A. Federal Black Lung Benefits Program

Prior cases have reviewed the legislative history of the Black Lung Benefits Act. See, e.g., Elliot Coal Mining Co. v. Director, OWCP, 17 F.3d 616, 627-28 (3d Cir. 1994); Helen Mining Co. v. Director, OWCP, 924 F.2d 1269, 1271-73 (3d Cir. 1991). We set forth only those portions that are essential to an understanding of this case. Originally promulgated in 1969 as part of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, Pub. L. No. 91-173, 83 Stat. 792 (1969) (codified at 30 U.S.C. §§ 901-945), Congress has amended the Black Lung Benefits Act several times. See, e.g., Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972, Pub. L. No. 92-303, 86 Stat. 150 (1972); Black Lung Benefits Reform Act of 1977, Pub. L. No. 95-239, 92 Stat. 95 (1978); Black Lung Benefits Amendments of 1981, Pub. L. No. 97-119, 95 Stat. 1635 (1981) (all codified at 30 U.S.C. §§ 901-945).

Claims for benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act are either "Part B," "transition period," or "Part C" claims. Part B governs all claims filed before June 30, 1973. See 30 U.S.C. §§ 921-925. Part B claims were filed with and adjudicated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration ("SSA"). Claims that were filed from July 1, 1973 through December 31, 1973 are "transition period" claims. 30 U.S.C. § 925.*fn1 Congress created the transition period to facilitate the transfer of the primary responsibility for processing and adjudicating claims from the SSA to the DOL. The federal treasury was responsible to pay benefits until January 1, 1974. 30 U.S.C. § 925(a). At that time, coal mine operators who had been notified of pending black lung claims were to assume liability for the payment of benefits. 30 U.S.C. § 925.

Part C, 30 U.S.C. §§ 932-945, which governs all claims filed after January 1, 1974, applies to the matter before us. Although DOL administers these claims, Part C establishes an employer-funded federal workers' compensation program in cooperation with the states to provide benefits to coal mine workers for total disability or death due to pneumoconiosis. A coal tax funded Black Lung Disability Trust Fund ("Fund") pays interim benefits when a designated responsible coal mine operator fails to commence payment within thirty days after the initial determination of eligibility by the deputy commissioner. 26 U.S.C. § 9501(d)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 725.522(b). If an administrative law Judge, the Board, or a court later determines that the recipient was entitled to the amount paid from the Fund and that the operator was liable, the responsible operator must repay the Fund. 30 U.S.C. § 934(b)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 725.602.

Congress designed section 422(g) of the BLBA to prevent Part C claimants from receiving duplicative black lung benefits. Director, OWCP v. Barnes & Tucker Co., 969 F.2d 1524, 1526 (3d Cir. 1992). Section 422(g) provides in pertinent part:

The amount of benefits payable under this section shall be reduced, on a monthly or other appropriate basis, by the amount of any compensation received under or pursuant to any Federal or State workmen's compensation law because of death or disability due to pneumoconiosis.

30 U.S.C. § 932(g). A provision is also designed to prevent double recovery in Part B claims. Although not directly applicable to the matter before us, it is useful to compare it with section 422(g). Section 412(b) reads in pertinent part:

Benefit payments under this section to a miner, or his widow, child, parent, brother, or sister shall be reduced, on a monthly or other appropriate basis, by an amount equal to any payment received by such miner or his widow, child, parent, brother, or sister under the workmen's compensation, unemployment compensation, or disability insurance laws of his State on account of the disability of such miner due to pneumoconiosis, and the amount by which such payments would be reduced on account of excess earnings of such miner under section 203(b) through (l) of the Social Security Act, if the amount paid were a benefit payable under section 202 of such Act.

30 U.S.C. § 922(a).

B. Pennsylvania Occupational Disease Act

In the two cases consolidated before the Board, miners George O'Brockta and Benjamin Stinner both received benefits pursuant to the Pennsylvania Occupational Disease Act, 77 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. ยงยง 1201-1603, because of pneumoconiosis. Section 301(i) of the ...


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