Compton v. Inland Steel Coal Co., 89-2943

Decision Date17 July 1991
Docket NumberNo. 89-2943,89-2943
Citation933 F.2d 477
PartiesAshland COMPTON, Petitioner, v. INLAND STEEL COAL COMPANY and Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, United States Department of Labor, Respondents.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Harold B. Culley, Jr., Raleigh, Ill., for petitioner.

Donald S. Shire, Sol. Gen., Dept. of Labor, Washington, D.C., John H. Secaras, Sol.Gen., Dept. of Labor, Chicago, Ill., Sylvia T. Kaser, Marta Kusic, Dept. of Labor, Black Lung Div., Linda Mikins, Benefits Review Bd., Dept. of Labor, Washington, D.C., Louis R. Hegeman, Jay D. Stein, Kathryn S. Mueller, Gould & Ratner, Chicago, Ill., for respondents.

Before CUMMINGS, COFFEY and RIPPLE, Circuit Judges.

CUMMINGS, Circuit Judge.

For more than thirty years, Ashland Compton, the claimant in this case, worked in the southern Illinois coal mines near Carbondale. He spent seventeen of his coal-mining years underground. Now he works no longer; he has heart disease and black lung disease ("pneumoconiosis") and, according to his doctor, can barely climb a flight of stairs, let alone descend into a coal mine to perform hard labor. For health reasons, Compton stopped working and finally left his job at Inland Steel Coal Company ("Inland Steel") in May of 1985, after having been on sick leave for a year. In 1984, he brought a claim to the Department of Labor for benefits he asserted were due to him under the Black Lung Benefits Act, as amended, 30 U.S.C. Secs. 901-945. The Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs subsequently determined that Compton was eligible to receive benefits under the terms of the Act. However, his employer, Inland Steel, responsible for payment of benefits under the Act, contested its liability, causing Compton's claim to be forwarded to an Administrative Law Judge. The ALJ held a hearing in Carbondale on June 4, 1987, and issued a written decision denying benefits on September 24, 1987. Compton appealed the ALJ's decision to the Benefits Review Board, which affirmed the ALJ.

Despite Compton's long career in the coal mines of Carbondale, the ALJ found that Compton failed to satisfy all three requirements of the regulations under the Act that serve as a precondition to the recovery of benefits. Compton came close, for the ALJ found (and it is uncontested here) that he satisfied the first two conditions. The regulations require that a miner, in order to receive black lung benefits, must first show that he has pneumoconiosis arising out of his employment in the mines. 20 C.F.R. Sec. 718.203. According to a physician's report, ample proof existed that Compton suffered from pneumoconiosis. Moreover, because he served in the mines for ten years or more, Compton benefits from the rebuttable presumption contained in 20 C.F.R. Sec. 718.203(b) that his pneumoconiosis arose out of his coal mine employment.

Next, Compton had to demonstrate that he was totally disabled within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. Sec. 718.204. The ALJ found Compton to be totally disabled based on the result of an arterial blood-gas test and the medical assessment by his doctor, Dr. Rao, that Compton's pulmonary condition severely limited his physical abilities. According to Dr. Rao, Compton could walk only one-half block, could climb only two flights of stairs, could lift only fifty pounds, and could carry such a load for only fifty feet. In his testimony Compton asserted also that he had experienced difficulty breathing since 1980.

Compton therefore satisfied the first two preconditions for the recovery of benefits--he has black lung disease and is totally disabled. This only advances him two-thirds of the way toward recovery; he must also show that the "total disability is due to pneumoconiosis." 20 C.F.R. Sec. 718.204(a). While Compton benefitted from the presumption that his pneumoconiosis arose from his employment in the mines, the applicable statute does not contain a similar presumption that his total disability was due to pneumoconiosis. Nor did the ALJ find there to be any evidence that pneumoconiosis caused Compton's total disability. Therefore, the ALJ denied black lung benefits to Compton.

The crux of this coal miner's case is causation. In his decision denying benefits, the ALJ did not articulate the proper standard for determining whether Compton's total disability was due to pneumoconiosis. Compton, the Department of Labor, and Inland Steel each urge a different standard for determining whether a claimant satisfies the regulatory causation requirement. Our task then requires us to choose among the three to the extent that our precedents allow.

Before reaching the question of legal causation, we must parse the record below to determine what medical findings were made by the physician who examined Compton concerning the extent to which his disability was due to pneumoconiosis. First, it is uncontested that Compton has a totally disabling respiratory impairment. According to Dr. Rao's medical report, pneumoconiosis was not claimant's only malady, for Compton also suffers from heart disease. However, Dr. Rao's report discloses that Compton's pneumoconiosis was related to dust exposure from coal mine employment and furthermore, that it was one of the conditions that brought about the pulmonary impairment.

Dr. Rao, having diagnosed the presence of pneumoconiosis and heart disease, did not specify the degree to which Compton's impairment could be attributed to one or the other of the diseases. Because Dr. Rao did not spell out the chain of causation, the ALJ found no basis in the medical record for concluding that Compton's total disability was due to pneumoconiosis.

The ALJ arrived at this conclusion without articulating the appropriate standard of causation. The Benefits Review Board, on review of the ALJ's decision, attempted to set forth what it viewed as the proper nexus under 20 C.F.R. Sec. 718. Citing Wilburn v. Director, OWCP, 11 Black Lung Reporter (MB) 1-135 (BRB 1988), the Board affirmed the ALJ's decision on the grounds that Compton had failed to establish that pneumoconiosis, in and of itself, was totally disabling. The "in and of itself" language has become problematic, because, regardless of what the Benefits Review Board initially intended in articulating this standard, Wilburn now stands for the proposition that a miner who suffers from a totally disabling respiratory impairment related in part to coal mine employment and in part to some other disability (e.g., smoking or heart disease) would be ineligible for black lung benefits under the Act. Wilburn held that a miner who suffers from pneumoconiosis and any other malady that contributes to his disability will be denied benefits because the sole cause of the disability is not pneumoconiosis.

Were this the applicable rule in this case, Compton, afflicted with both pneumoconiosis and heart disease, would be out of luck. However, the Board's reliance on Wilburn is misplaced. The "in and of itself" rule contravenes our precedents and has also been expressly repudiated by other circuits and by the Board itself, which reversed Wilburn in an en banc decision. Scott v. Mason Coal Co., No. 88-1838 BLA (BRB June 22, 1990). 1

Our starting point is the decision recently announced by this Court in Shelton v. Director, OWCP, 899 F.2d 690 (7th Cir.1990). In Shelton, we reviewed in detail the proper standard for determining whether a miner's total disability was due to pneumoconiosis within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. Sec. 718.204(a). Like Compton, the claimant in that case had dual afflictions, but in Shelton, the claimant was a lifelong smoker; he did not suffer from heart disease. The Court explored all of the possible meanings attributable to "due to pneumoconiosis." After rejecting Wilburn 's stringent requirement that pneumoconiosis be the sole cause of the claimant's disability, the Shelton Court focused on a more plausible formulation.

In order to satisfy the causation requirement, we held that pneumoconiosis must be a "contributing cause" of the total disability, such that "mining must be a necessary, but need not be a sufficient condition of the miner's disability." Shelton, 899 F.2d at 693. As Judge Posner explained, "if [Shelton] had not mined, he would not have become totally disabled, although he might have avoided the disability by care on some other front, for example, by not smoking." Id. The same analysis applies here: if the ALJ finds that Compton could have become totally disabled without having pneumoconiosis, then he does not recover. In the alternative, a miner's disabled condition may be caused only in part by pneumoconiosis. Under the rule of Shelton, if Compton did not also have heart disease, he might have escaped classification as totally disabled within the meaning of the Act.

Shelton establishes a workable, sensible framework for determining whether the causation requirement is satisfied so that a disabled miner can recover black lung benefits. Shelton 's utility has been proven already in this Court's decision in Hawkins v. Director, OWCP, 907 F.2d 697 (7th Cir.1990). In Hawkins, the Court recognized that "[a]s Shelton makes clear, claimants must prove a simple 'but for' nexus to be entitled to benefits," id. at 701, and rejected a reading of Shelton that would require pneumoconiosis to be a "substantial contributing cause" of the total disability.

Hawkins explicitly declined to heighten a miner's burden further by requiring that he prove that pneumoconiosis was a "substantial" or "primary" cause of total disability. Hawkins reaffirms the result in Shelton that a miner need show only that he possesses a total pulmonary disability which is necessarily due in part to pneumoconiosis. The Court remanded the case to the ALJ to permit the claimant to make such a showing under the proper Shelton...

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