Office of Workers' Compensation, v. Greenwich Collieries

Citation114 S.Ct. 2251,512 U.S. 267,129 L.Ed.2d 221
Decision Date20 June 1994
Docket Number93744
PartiesDIRECTOR, OFFICE OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION PROGRAMS, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, Petitioner v. GREENWICH COLLIERIES. DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION PROGRAMS, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, Petitioner v. MAHER TERMINALS, INC., et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus **

In adjudicating separate benefits claims under the Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA) and the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA), the Department of Labor Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) both applied the Department's "true doubt" rule. This rule essentially shifts the burden of persuasion to the party opposing the claim so that when, as here, the evidence is evenly balanced, the benefits claimant wins. In both cases, the Department's Benefits Review Board affirmed the ALJ's decision to award benefits. However, the Court of Appeals vacated the Board's decision in the BLBA case, holding that the true doubt rule is inconsistent with the Department's own BLBA regulations, as well as with Mullins Coal Co. v. Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, 484 U.S. 135, 108 S.Ct. 427, 98 L.Ed.2d 450. And, in the LHWCA case, the court reversed on the ground that the true doubt rule violates § 7(c) of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which states that "[e]xcept as otherwise provided by statute, the proponent of a rule or order has the burden of proof."

Held:

1. Section 7(c)'s burden of proof provision applies to adjudications under the LHWCA and the BLBA, each of which contains a section incorporating the APA. Neither 33 U.S.C. § 923(a), which relieves the Department of certain evidentiary and procedural requirements in LHWCA investigations and hearings, nor an ambiguous BLBA regulation providing that claimants be given the benefit of all reasonable doubt, is sufficient to overcome the presumption that adjudications are subject to the APA. See Brownell v. Tom We Shung, 352 U.S. 180, 185, 77 S.Ct. 252, 255-256, 1 L.Ed.2d 225. Pp. ____.

2. The true doubt rule is not consistent with § 7(c). Pp. 2255-2259.

(a) An examination of Hill v. Smith, 260 U.S. 592, 594, 43 S.Ct. 219, 219-220, 67 L.Ed. 419, and other relevant cases, as well as contemporary evidence treatises, demonstrates that, in 1946, the year the APA was enacted, the ordinary meaning of § 7(c)'s "burden of proof" phrase was burden of persuasion (i.e., the obligation to persuade the trier of fact of the truth of a proposition), not simply burden of production (i.e., the obligation to come forward with evidence to support a claim). This Court presumes that Congress intended the phrase to have the meaning generally accepted in the legal community at the time of enactment. See, e.g., Holmes v. Securities Investor Protection Corp., 503 U.S. ----, ----, 112 S.Ct. 1311, 1318, 117 L.Ed.2d 532. Because the true doubt rule places the burden of persuasion on the party opposing a benefits award, it violates § 7(c)'s requirement that that burden rest with the party seeking the award. Pp. ____.

(b) In light of the foregoing, the cursory conclusion set forth in NLRB v. Transportation Management Corp., 462 U.S. 393, 404, n. 7, 103 S.Ct. 2469, 2475-2476, n. 7, 76 L.Ed.2d 667 — in which the Court stated that § 7(c) determines only the burden of going forward, not the burden of persuasion — cannot withstand scrutiny. Pp. ____.

(c) The Department's reliance on imprecise and marginally relevant passages from the APA's legislative history is unavailing. Pp. ____.

(d) The true doubt runs afoul of the APA's goal of greater uniformity of procedure and standardization of administrative practice among the diverse federal agencies, for under the Department's reading each agency would be free to decide who bears the burden of persuasion. P. ____.

3. Because these cases are decided on the basis of § 7(c), this Court need not address the Court of Appeals' holding that the true doubt rule conflicts with BLBA regulations and Mullins Coal. P. ____. 990 F.2d 730 (CA3 1993) (first case) and 992 F.2d 1277 (CA3 1993) (second case), affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined. SOUTER, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined.

Edward C. DuMont, New York City, for petitioner.

Mark E. Solomons, Washington, DC, for respondents.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In adjudicating benefits claims under the Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA), 83 Stat. 792, as amended, 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq. (1988 ed. and Supp. IV), and the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA), 44 Stat. 1424, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq., the Department of Labor applies what it calls the "true doubt" rule. This rule essentially shifts the burden of persuasion to the party opposing the benefits claim — when the evidence is evenly balanced, the benefits claimant wins. This case presents the question whether the rule is consistent with § 7(c) of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which states that "[e]xcept as otherwise provided by statute, the proponent of a rule or order has the burden of proof." 5 U.S.C. § 556(d).

I

We review two separate decisions of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In one, Andrew Ondecko applied for disability benefits under the BLBA after working as a coal miner for 31 years. The Administrative Law Judge determined that Ondecko had pneumoconiosis (or black lung disease), that he was totally disabled by the disease, and that the disease resulted from coal mine employment. In resolving the first two issues, the Administrative Law Judge relied on the true doubt rule. In resolving the third, she relied on the rebuttable presumption that a miner with pneumoconiosis who worked in the mines for at least 10 years developed the disease because of his employment. 20 CFR § 718.203(b) (1993). The Department's Benefits Review Board affirmed, concluding that the Administrative Law Judge had considered all the evidence, had found each side's evidence to be equally probative, and had properly resolved the dispute in Ondecko's favor under the true doubt rule. The Court of Appeals vacated the Board's decision, holding that the true doubt rule is inconsistent with the Department's own regulations under the BLBA, § 718.403, as well as with Mullins Coal Co. v. Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, 484 U.S. 135, 108 S.Ct. 427, 98 L.Ed.2d 450 (1987). 990 F.2d 730 (CA3 1993).

In the other case, Michael Santoro suffered a work-related back and neck injury while employed by respondent Maher Terminals. Within a few months Santoro was diagnosed with nerve cancer, and he died shortly thereafter. His widow filed a claim under the LHWCA alleging that the work injury had rendered her husband disabled and caused his death. After reviewing the evidence for both sides, the Administrative Law Judge found it equally probative and, relying on the true doubt rule, awarded benefits to the claimant. The Board affirmed, finding no error in the Administrative Law Judge's analysis or his application of the true doubt rule. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the true doubt rule is inconsistent with § 7(c) of the APA. 992 F.2d 1277 (CA3 1993). In so holding, the court expressly disagreed with Freeman United Coal Mining Co. v. Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, 988 F.2d 706 (CA7 1993). We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict. 510 U.S. ----, 114 S.Ct. 751, 127 L.Ed.2d 69 (1994).

II

As a threshold matter, we must decide whether § 7(c)'s burden of proof provision applies to adjudications under the LHWCA and the BLBA. Section 7(c) of the APA applies "[e]xcept as otherwise provided by statute," and the Department argues that the statutes at issue here make clear that § 7(c) does not apply. We disagree.

The Department points out that in conducting investigations or hearings pursuant to the LHWCA, the "Board shall not be bound by common law or statutory rules of evidence or by technical or formal rules of procedure, except as provided by this chapter." 33 U.S.C. § 923(a). But the assignment of the burden of proof is a rule of substantive law, American Dredging Co. v. Miller, 510 U.S. ----, ----, 114 S.Ct. 981, 988, 127 L.Ed.2d 285 (1994), so it is unclear whether this exception even applies. More importantly, § 923 by its terms applies "except as provided by this chapter," and the chapter provides that § 7(c) does indeed apply to the LHWCA. 33 U.S.C. § 919(d) ("[n]otwithstanding any other provisions of this chapter, any hearing held under this chapter shall be conducted in accordance with [the APA]"); 5 U.S.C. § 554(c)(2). We do not lightly presume exemptions to the APA, Brownell v. Tom We Shung, 352 U.S. 180, 185, 77 S.Ct. 252, 256, 1 L.Ed.2d 225 (1956), and we do not think § 923 by its terms exempts the LHWCA from § 7(c).

The Department's argument under the BLBA fares no better. The BLBA also incorporates the APA (by incorporating parts of the LHWCA), but it does so "except as otherwise provided . . . by regulations of the Secretary." 30 U.S.C. § 932(a). The Department argues that the following BLBA regulation so provides: "In enacting [the BLBA], Congress intended that claimants be given the benefit of all reasonable doubt as to the existence of total or partial disability or death due to pneumoconiosis." 20 CFR § 718.3(c) (1993). But we do not think this regulation can fairly be read as authorizing the true doubt rule and rejecting the APA's burden of proof provision. Not only does the regulation fail to mention the true doubt rule or § 7(c), it does not even mention the concept of burden shifting or burdens of proof. Accordingly and assuming arguendo that the Department has the authority to displace § 7(c) through regulation — this ambiguous regulation does not overcome the presumption that these adjudications under the BLBA are...

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