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6th Circuit to Black Lung Claimants: Make it Quick

By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 11, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA) of 1973 provides monthly assistance and medical benefits to black lung sufferers ... if they've applied in time that is.

In a decision Monday in Peabody Coal Company v. Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, et al. ("Brigance"), the Sixth Circuit stated that the statute of limitations for filing a claim under the BLBA properly began to run after a medical report informed a suffering former miner that he had pneumoconiosis (black lung).

Peabody's Claim

And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away

- John Prine's "Paradise"

The aforementioned Mister Peabody's coal company brought this appeal to the Sixth Circuit after an administrative law judge approved the claim of Virgil Brigance, a former coal miner, under the BLBA despite being past the three year statute of limitations (SOL).

The relevant part of the federal law is found under 30 USC Section 932(f), stating that the SOL starts running with "a medical determination of total disability due to pneumoconiosis."

Peabody claims this began when Brigance noticed two doctors' evaluations confirming total disability by black lung.

Diagnosed or Not?

There's diagnosed with black lung, and then there's diagnosed. Right? If you're confused, so was Peabody, as the ALJ asserted that Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company v. Kirk required that a diagnosis isn't really solid for SOL purposes until an ALJ determines it was "well-reasoned."

The Sixth ruled in a prior Peabody/BLBA case that interpreting the SOL relies on the language of the Act, which does not support this odd construction.

Keep on Tolling

The Brigance court stated that Brigance "sat on his rights" in letting the SOL lapse for his BLBA claim, but what about equitable tolling? The Supreme Court said it best in Irwin v. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, allowing equitable remedy where claimant:

  • Pursued claim but filed defective pleading; OR
  • Was induced or tricked by adverse party to allow the deadline to pass

This remedy doesn't apply when a claimants just neglects to file, despite the almost cartoonish merits in Brigance which pit an ailing coal miner against a villainous coal company (at least according to John Prine).

Editor's Note December 26, 2013: This post was updated to reflect that the original writer of "Paradise" was John Prine, not John Denver.

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