Coal workers with black lung disease might be among the first casualties of the recent chaos at the West Virginia Supreme Court. Last year, a TV investigative report uncovered lavish spending on the private offices of the justices, to the tune of $3.9 million. Examples included a $32,000 sofa, $1,700 throw pillows, and $16,000 for eight office chairs. This blew up into a major scandal that resulted in the impeachment of the entire Supreme Court.
In the aftermath of this chaos, most of the justices are brand new. These justices issued a ruling last week that appears to go against previous legal precedent and could make it more difficult for coal workers to access black lung disease benefits. The newly assembled Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Workers’ Compensation Board of Review rejecting benefits for four coal workers with Occupational Pneumoconiosis (OP), also known as black lung disease.
At issue in this case was whether or not three coal miners and one factory worker would be allowed to be examined by the Occupational Pneumoconiosis (OP) Board for the purposes of determining if they would qualify for benefits. In a 4-2 ruling, the court rejected the claims saying that they did not meet the statutory filing deadlines for occupational pneumoconiosis benefits. These deadlines are:
- Three years from the last day of 60 continuous days of exposure to the hazardous substances known to cause occupational pneumoconiosis; or
- Three years after being diagnosed with an impairment due to this condition.
Justice Tim Armstead, in writing for the majority, said, “It is undisputed that none of the four claimants filed an application or claim within three years of their date of last exposure.” Justice Armstead went on to say that none of the claims set forth a diagnosed impairment, and that the claims were “properly rejected by the Board of Review.”
Chief Justice Margaret Workman vehemently disagreed with the Court’s decision in a scathing dissent. Chief Justice Workman said of the majority:
By utilizing an inapplicable statute of limitations to bar even the filing of a claim, today’s opinion is an extreme departure from the long-standing rule of law firmly established in the management of OP claims. The majority is way too eager to rewrite West Virginia Code §23-4-15(b) (2017) with far-reaching and grotesquely unfair consequences. It demonstrates either an ignorance of the law or a callous disregard for those who suffer from OP…
Chief Justice Workman goes on to argue that while there are two separate time limitations on which a claim for benefits can be barred, these limitations have never been applied to deny a claimant an evaluation from the OP Board. Furthermore, an evaluation of the OP Board is necessary to determine if a claimant has a black lung disease-related impairment that would qualify them for benefits. So, to deny a claimant the right to an OP Board evaluation because of the lack of a diagnosed impairment seems to be a catch-22.
Chief Justice Workman Continues:
A claimant has never been required to bear the burden and expense of having pulmonary function tests performed and evaluated before filing a claim…It is therefore nonsensical to require a claimant to produce evidence of the very thing the OP Board serves to provide before being permitted to present one’s claim to the OP board.
Progressive Nature of Black Lung Disease at Issue
Both the majority and dissenting opinions acknowledged that black lung disease is a progressive condition that can worsen severely over time. However, the majority sided with the Commissioner and the claimants’ employers and their contention that allowing these examinations (outside of the three-year deadline) would “unreasonably burden” the OP Board. In denying the claims, the majority callously dismissed the progressive nature of the disease by stating that the four claimants were “free to file a claim within three years of receiving a diagnosed impairment due to occupational pneumoconiosis.”
Workers Affected by Black Lung Disease need Strong Legal Representation
Black lung disease has been on the rise in recent years. A 2017 NPR investigation identified nearly 2,000 cases across West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Sadly, coal workers in West Virginia who may have this condition must now overcome a major barrier to receive the diagnoses needed to obtain benefits. Unless and until the West Virginia Supreme Court reverses this grossly misguided ruling, there are likely to be many more denials of OP Board examinations (based on the precedent set by the ruling).
There are thousands of coal workers in West Virginia that are living with black lung disease. But to obtain the benefits they deserve, they will now have to jump through more legal hoops. If you or a loved one is in this position, it is important to have strong legal counsel by your side aggressively advocating for your rights and interests.
At Bailey, Javins, and Carter, we have over four decades of experience standing up for West Virginia coal workers. We have in-depth knowledge of the state laws regarding black lung disease and related issues miners face, and we have a successful track record securing just compensation on their behalf. Even when court rulings go against state workers, we will continue to fight hard for their rights and put our extensive experience to work to skillfully argue their cases.