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REICH v. CONSOL ENERGY

December 27, 1995

ROBERT B. REICH, Secretary of Labor, United States Department of Labor, Plaintiff,
v.
CONSOL ENERGY INCORPORATED, a corporation, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LEE

 December 27, 1995

 Before the Court are Defendant, Consol Energy Inc.'s, Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Document No. 9) and Plaintiff's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 14).

 The Court held oral argument on the motions on December 13, 1995, and after consideration of the arguments of the parties, the memoranda in support of the parties' respective positions and the record, the Court will grant the plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment (Document No. 14) and deny defendant, Consol Energy, Inc.'s motion for partial summary judgment (Document No. 9).

 Factual Background

 The plaintiff, Robert B. Reich, Secretary of Labor, ("Secretary") filed this action on December 9, 1994, pursuant to the authority set forth in 30 U.S.C. §§ 934(b)(4)(A) and 934(b)(4)(B) to recover unpaid interest due on the amount of medical benefit payments previously reimbursed to the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund ("Trust Fund") by the defendant which is the parent corporation of or the successor in interest to the parent company of various coal mine operators who employed 31 coal miners to whom the Fund paid medical benefits.

 Counts IV, VII, IX, XVIII and XXVII were withdrawn by stipulation and approved by the Court. Therefore, the Secretary seeks interest on the medical payments paid to or on behalf of the 26 remaining miners.

 The defendant was determined to be responsible for the payment of medical benefits for the 26 coal miners pursuant to the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. §§ 901, et seq, as amended. The Fund paid the medical benefits to or on behalf of the 26 miners while the defendant contested its liability. Thereafter, the defendant reimbursed the principal amount of the medical benefits incurred by the fund in paying the benefits to or on behalf of the miners.

 Following the reimbursements of defendant, the Department of Labor computed the interest owed from the date of the Trust Fund's initial disbursement until the date of defendant's reimbursement using applicable statutorily mandated interest rates.

 The Secretary then demanded payment of the computed interest and the defendant refused to pay same. Liens have attached to the defendant's property by operation of law for the total amount of interest due, and the Secretary is seeking judgment in his favor in the amount of $ 206,676.21.

 In its motion for partial summary judgment, the defendant has raised the defense that the claims of the Secretary for interest on the reimbursed medical benefit payments is barred by the applicable statute of limitations of six years found in 30 U.S.C. § 934(b)(4)(B). *fn1"

 Moreover, in opposition to the Secretary's cross motion for summary judgment, the defendant asserts various arguments:

 
(i) summary judgment is not available for the Secretary since there exists a genuine issue of fact with regard to the amount of interest due, which argument is based on a number of demand letters sent by the Division of Coal Mine Workers Compensation to the defendant or its predecessors which vary in the amount of interest presently sought by the Secretary *fn2"
 
(ii) summary judgment is not available on Counts VI and XXIV which arise out of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Office of Workers Compensation Programs in that a memorandum from that office purportedly offered not to assess interest against mine operators or their insurers if medical benefit payments were reimbursed to the Fund on or before July 28, 1989, and in reliance thereon, the defendant reimbursed those claims before that date. Also, in that regard, defendant asserts that the Johnstown office treated mine operators differently in that notwithstanding that the medical benefits in question were reimbursed by the defendant before July 28, 1989, interest continued to be assessed on those claims.
 
(iii) there is a genuine question as to whether the Secretary is estopped from collection of interest on Count XII based on a letter sent regarding that claim from the Columbus, Ohio, office of the Division of Coal Mine Workers Compensation in which the author opines: "It seems equitable to me to waive interest charges . . ." and that the inordinate delay on the part of the Deputy Commissioner in commuting the amount of benefits due including interest and giving timely notice thereof to the defendant estops the collection of these claims.
 
(iv) the Secretary failed to comply with 20 C.F.R. § 725.478 which requires: ". . . immediately upon receipt of a decision, an order awarding benefits, the Deputy Commissioner shall compute the amount of benefits due, including any interest or penalties, and the amount of reimbursement of the Fund, if any, and so notify the parties, and therefore, the Secretary is estopped from collecting on those claims where there was an inordinate delay in making the requisite computation and notification of the defendant." *fn3"

 The defendant asserts § 725.478 estops the plaintiff's claim on those claims where there was an inordinate delay on the part of the Deputy Commissioner in making the computation and notifying the responsible mine operators.

 Discussion

 The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in BethEnergy Mines v. Dir., Office of Workers' Comp., 32 F.3d 843 (3d Cir. 1994) succinctly describes the applicable rubric under the Black Lung Benefits Act in a fact situation strikingly similar to that here, as follows:

 
The Black Lung Benefits Act ("the Act"), 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq, establishes a comprehensive legislative scheme designed to compensate miners for medical problems and disabilities related to pneumoconiosis (black lunch disease).
 
The Act incorporates by reference the claim management and adjudication procedures of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (the "Longshore Act") to govern the Department of Labor's administration of Part C of the Act (the employer-funded federal workers' compensation program applicable to employees who have become totally disabled or died due to pneumoconiosis.). See 30 U.S.C. § 932(a) (incorporating most of 33 U.S.C. §§ 901-950; see also Louisville and Nashville R.R. Co. v. Donovan, 713 F.2d 1243, 1247 n. 2 (6th Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 466 U.S. 936, 104 S. Ct. 1908, 80 L. Ed. 2d 457 (1984).
 
In this case, our concern is with claims made to the Department of Labor for medical benefits only. Therefore, there is no need to review the history of the involvement of the Social Security Administration and the manner of resolving claims made for miners' disability or death, all of which has been reviewed in prior cases. See, e.g., Pittston Coal Group v. Sebben, 488 U.S. 105, 109 S. Ct. 414, 102 L. Ed. 2d 408 (1988); Mullins Coal Co. v. Director, OWCP, 484 U.S. 135, 108 S. Ct. 427, 98 L. Ed. 2d 450 (1987); Elliot Coal Mining ...

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