Argued September 25, 1997
Before: Cowen, Roth and Lewis, Circuit Judges
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roth, Circuit Judge:
On Petition for Review of an Order of the Benefits Review Board, United States Department of Labor BRB No. 95-1760
Armando Venicassa has filed a Petition for Review from the decision of the Benefits Review Board ("Board"), affirming the denial by the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") of Venicassa's claim for black lung benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. § 901, et. seq. (the "Act"). In an earlier hearing, the ALJ had dismissed United States Steel Corporation, the responsible coal mine operator, designated by the Office of Worker's Compensation Programs ("OWCP"), and had awarded benefits to Venicassa, to be paid by the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund ("Trust Fund"). The Director of the OWCP appealed this decision to the Board. The Board then remanded Venicassa's claim to the OWCP to permit the OWCP to identify a second responsible operator to pay benefits. We must decide whether, after the award on the merits to Venicassa, the Board could vacate that award so that the ALJ might designate a second responsible operator and begin the process all over again.
For the reasons we discuss below, we conclude that the Board erred when it remanded this case for designation of a second responsible operator. We will, therefore, grant the petition for review, vacate the decision of the Board, and remand this case to the Board to reinstate the ALJ's ruling, granting Venicassa's claim for benefits and ordering the Trust Fund to pay them.*fn1
We have appellate jurisdiction in this matter pursuant to the Longshoreman's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. § 902, made applicable to Black Lung Benefits cases by 30 U.S.C. § 932(a). The decision of the Benefits Review Board is a final order under Section 21(c) of the Longshoreman's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. § 921(c) as incorporated by section 422(a) of the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. § 932(a).
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
This case comes to us with a lengthy procedural history, due in large part to the long delay by the OWCP in processing Venicassa's claim and to the acknowledged error by the OWCP in designating the responsible coal mine operator.*fn2
The petitioner in this case, Armando Venicassa, worked in and around coal mining operations for 43 years before he retired in 1985. In 1986, he filed a claim with the OWCP for benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act. Under the Act, benefits are awardable to persons who are totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis, a disease known as "black lung." The OWCP processed Venicassa's claim for benefits with the information he supplied. Venicassa indicated clearly on his claim form that his most recent employer was Consolidation Coal Company, for whom he worked from January 1984 until his retirement in August 1985. However, despite being supplied with accurate information, the OWCP erroneously designated United States Steel Corporation ("U.S. Steel") as the responsible operator.*fn3
Venicassa's claim was then referred to the Department of Labor's Office of Administrative Law Judges for a formal hearing. In February 1987, the Director of the OWCP moved to remand the case for identification of another responsible operator. This motion to remand came 13 months after Venicassa had provided the OWCP with the information to identify the proper responsible operator. In August 1988, prior to the formal hearing on Venicassa's claim, the ALJ denied the motion to remand.*fn4 Citing the Benefits Review Board decision in Crabtree v. Bethlehem Steel Corp.,7 BLR 1-354 (1984), the ALJ held that due process concerns dictated that the hearing go forward and that, if U.S. Steel was not the responsible operator, it would be dismissed and the Director of the OWCP substituted to defend the claim. At the hearing, Venicassa testified that U.S. Steel had been improperly designated as the responsible operator. The ALJ then dismissed U.S. Steel and substituted the Director.
To succeed on a claim for black lung benefits, a claimant must establish that he suffers from pneumoconiosis and, as a result, is totally disabled. In addition, the claimant must establish that the pneumoconiosis is the result of coal mining. Under the Act, pneumoconiosis may be established by x-ray evidence or by a finding of a physician that the miner suffers from the disease. 30 U.S.C. § 902(f)(1) (1986); 20 C.F.R. § 718.202.
At the hearing, the ALJ concluded that Venicassa's chest x-rays did not establish pneumoconiosis. However, the ALJ also heard five medical experts, four of whom diagnosed some form of lung disease related to coal dust exposure. The one physician, who did not find lung disease related to coal exposure, did so without providing his reasoning. The ALJ, therefore, ascribed little weight to that opinion. The ALJ concluded that the weight of medical established the finding of pneumoconiosis. Since Venicassa had at least 10 years of coal mining employment, the ALJ found that Venicassa was entitled to the statutory presumption that his pneumoconiosis arose as a result of coal mine employment. 30 U.S.C. § 921(c) (1986). The ALJ credited Venicassa with 43 years of coal mine employment and found evidence sufficient to establish the existence of pneumoconiosis due to that employment. As a result, on June 23, 1989, the ALJ awarded benefits to Venicassa.
The Director appealed this decision to the Benefits Review Board. In its review of the ALJ's decision, the Board did not address the merits of the entitlement to benefits. Instead, it vacated the award and remanded the case to the deputy commissioner for determination of another responsible operator. The Board found it significant that the Director had filed the Motion to Remand before a formal hearing had been held. For this reason, the Board held that the due process concerns of relitigating the case were less compelling than those facing the Crabtree Court.
On remand, the OWCP designated Consolidation Coal as the responsible operator. Venicassa's benefits were then stopped. In December 1994, a second hearing on Venicassa's eligibility for benefits was held before the same ALJ. Consolidation Coal submitted evidence in addition to that presented at the first hearing. Venicassa submitted only the record of the medical evidence from thefirst hearing. In addition, Venicassa testified about the deterioration of his health during the more than five years since the initial award of benefits. The physicians, who had presented medical testimony at the first hearing regarding Venicassa's respiratory problems, did not testify in person at the second hearing.
At the Conclusion of the second hearing, the ALJ denied Venicassa's claim for benefits. Venicassa appealed to the Benefits Review Board on June 23, 1995. On October 22, 1996, the Board issued a final decision, affirming the decision of the ALJ. Venicassa then timely filed his petition for review with this Court.
We review decisions of the Benefits Review Board and of the ALJ for errors of law. Lango v. Director, OWCP, 104 F.3d 573, 575 (3d Cir. 1997); Kowalchick v. Director, OWCP, 893 F.2d 615, 619 (3d Cir. 1990).
The petitioner contends that the Board's reversal of the award of benefits and its decision to remand this case for the designation of a second responsible operator violated due process and subjected him to substantial prejudice. He argues that to make him relitigate a claim, on which he has already won an award of benefits on the merits, violates due process. He further contends that, under the rationale of the Benefits Review Board in Crabtree, the efficient administration of the Black Lung Benefits Act dictates that the case should not have been remanded and that the Trust Fund should be reinstated as payor.
The Director argues that, although a mistake occurred in the designation of U.S. Steel as the responsible operator at the outset, the Director attempted to correct the mistake with the motion to remand for designation of another responsible operator. The Director further contends that the ALJ's denial of that motion was in error and that the Trust Fund is not the appropriate payor because ultimately Consolidation Coal was identified as the responsible operator.
We begin our review with an examination of the regulations, under the Black Lung Benefits Act, which govern the designation of a responsible operator. These regulations provide:
At any time during the processing of a claim under this part, after sufficient evidence has been made available to the deputy commissioner, the deputy commissioner may identify a coal mine operator...which may be liable for the payment of the claim .... Such identification shall be made as soon after the filing of the claim as the evidence obtained permits ....
20 C.F.R. § 725.412(a). The responsible operator is defined as "the operator or other employer with which the individual had the most recent periods of cumulative employment of not less than one (1) year." 20 C.F.R. § 725.493(a)(1).
It is uncontested that, as of January 1986 when Venicassa first filed his claim, the OWCP had all the evidence necessary to designate the proper responsible operator. However, the Director argues that, under the Act and the applicable regulations, a coal mine operator may be designated as responsible operator for the purposes of defending a claim for Black Lung Benefits "at any time" during the processing of the claim. The Director claims, therefore, that the ALJ improperly refused to remand the case for the designation of a second responsible operator.
The regulations also state, however, that the identification of the responsible operator shall be made "as soon after the filing of the claim as the evidence obtained permits." For this reason, Venicassa argues that, since from the outset the Director had enough information to name the proper responsible operator, Venicassa should not be penalized for the Director's failure to do so. Venicassa contends that, because the OWCP did not make a prompt resolution of the responsible operator issue, the ALJ's decision to go forward with the hearing on ...