Peabody Coal Co. v. Hill

Decision Date18 August 1997
Docket NumberNo. 96-3556,96-3556
Citation123 F.3d 412
PartiesPEABODY COAL COMPANY; Old Republic Insurance Company, Petitioners, v. Arthur E. HILL, Respondent.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Laura Metcoff Klaus (argued and briefed), Mark E. Solomons (briefed), Arter & Hadden, Washington, DC, for Petitioners.

A.V. Conway, II (argued and briefed), Hartford, KY, for Arthur E. Hill.

Patricia Nece, Jill M. Otte, U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Solicitor, Washington, DC, for Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, United States Department of Labor.

Before: SILER and COLE, Circuit

Judges; WISEMAN, District Judge *.

COLE, Circuit Judge.

Petitioners, Peabody Coal Company and Old Republic Insurance Company (Peabody), appeal the decision and order of the Benefits Review Board of the United States Department of Labor (Board). The Board awarded benefits on a claim which Respondent, Arthur Hill, an employee of Peabody, filed pursuant to the provisions of Title IV of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, as amended, 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq. Peabody argues that the administrative law judge (ALJ) failed to explain adequately his reasons for favoring the medical testimony of some physicians over that of others. For the reasons stated below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the Board.

I.

Born in 1921, Arthur Lee Hill worked underground as a coal miner for thirty-seven years. Having a seventh-grade education and no vocational training, Hill was employed from 1975 to 1983 by Peabody Coal Co. The last coal mine assignment Hill performed for a substantial period of time was that of an underground shuttle car driver. This job involved sustained, heavy, manual labor, including the loading, unloading, and manhandling of timbers which Hill transported deep underground into low and narrow passages for use by coal extraction crews. He was also required to load and unload other items he transported as part of his job.

Hill underwent a series of medical tests and examinations in 1983 to determine whether he had occupational pneumoconiosis. Among the tests performed were x-rays, the radiographic interpretations of which were in conflict, and multiple ventilatory and blood gas studies, which, while demonstrating some evidence of pulmonary impairment, were not sufficient to establish total disability.

In addition, five physicians performed a series of comprehensive medical examinations on Hill. In January 1983, Dr. Valentino Simpao, experienced in pulmonary and respiratory disease, performed such an examination on Hill and concluded that he had a pulmonary disability that was moderate to total. Attributing this disability to a history of exposure to coal mine dust, he found that it was caused by pulmonary fibrosis with chronic bronchitis. Dr. Simpao examined Hill again in August 1983 and reported comparable findings. On March 7, 1983, Dr. William West, a general practitioner who directs a miner's respiratory clinic in West Virginia, administered a similar examination and reported that Hill was permanently and totally disabled for coal mine employment due to exposure to coal mine dust. Dr. West also noted the nature and exertional demands of Hill's coal mine work. Still another physician, Dr. Sam Traughber, whose credentials are unclear from the record, conducted an equally comprehensive examination on March 18, 1983 and found that Hill's pulmonary complaints were due, in part, to coal mine dust exposure and to a lengthy cigarette smoking history. He diagnosed pneumoconiosis. Dr. Traughber found Hill totally disabled, partially due to pneumoconiosis.

In May and June 1983, two physicians examined Hill on behalf of Peabody. Dr. W.H. Anderson, a board-certified internist with a certified subspecialty in pulmonary disease, examined Hill on May 20 and found a Class 3 or 25-35% disability, no pneumoconiosis, and a mild decrease in functional capacity not precluding any work other than exertion of a demanding nature. He attributed this condition solely to Hill's cigarette smoking history. Dr. O'Neil, also experienced in pulmonary and respiratory disease, examined Hill and reported that while Hill had a probable mild obstructive airway disease, he did not suffer from pneumoconiosis or from any other respiratory function attributable to coal mine employment.

On June 16, 1983, Hill filed his federal black lung claim. Peabody denied liability, contending that Hill was not totally disabled as a result of an occupationally related lung disease. The Department of Labor (DOL) initially determined that Hill did not qualify for the requested benefits.

Hill requested a hearing before an administrative law judge with DOL. The ALJ held a hearing on September 10, 1986. On October 5, 1987, the ALJ issued a decision awarding Hill benefits. Peabody filed an appeal to the Benefits Review Board. On February 28, 1989, the Board issued a decision vacating the ALJ's award of benefits because of an application of the wrong regulations and remanded the case for subsequent adjudication. In vacating the ALJ's original decision, the Board directed the ALJ to reconsider all appropriate evidence and to base the decision on the criteria established in 20 C.F.R. pt. 718. In accordance with the Board's directive, the ALJ issued another decision and again awarded Hill benefits. Peabody again filed a timely appeal to the Board. On May 18, 1995, the Board issued a decision and order affirming the award of benefits. Peabody filed a Motion for Reconsideration, which the Board denied on March 22, 1996. Peabody then brought this appeal.

II.

The scope of our review of decisions of the Board is limited. Consolidation Coal Co. v. McMahon, 77 F.3d 898, 900 (6th Cir.1996). This court must affirm the Board's decision if the Board has not committed any legal error or exceeded its statutory scope of review of the ALJ's factual determinations. Director, OWCP v. Quarto Mining Co., 901 F.2d 532, 536 (6th Cir.1990). The standards of review for the Board and this court are the same. Welch v. Benefits Review Bd., 808 F.2d 443, 445 (6th Cir.1986) (per curiam). Accordingly, "[w]hen the question is whether the [administrative law judge] reached the correct result after weighing conflicting medical evidence," Youghiogheny & Ohio Coal Co. v. Webb, 49 F.3d 244, 246 (6th Cir.1995), the scope of review of both the Board and this panel is exceedingly narrow. "Absent an error of law, findings of fact and conclusions flowing therefrom must be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence." Consolidation Coal Co. v. Worrell, 27 F.3d 227, 230-31 (6th Cir.1994) (per curiam).

Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Ramey v. Kentland Elkhorn Coal Corp., 755 F.2d 485, 488 (6th Cir.1985) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). In deciding whether the substantial evidence requirement is satisfied, we consider whether the administrative law judge adequately explained the reasons for crediting certain testimony and evidence over other evidence in the record in deciding either to award or deny benefits. Director, OWCP v. Congleton, 743 F.2d 428, 430 (6th Cir.1984). Finally, when dealing with a claim for benefits, we keep in mind that the Black Lung Benefits Act is remedial in nature and must be liberally construed " 'to include the largest numbers of miners as benefit recipients.' " Tussey v. Island Creek Coal Co., 982 F.2d 1036, 1042 (6th Cir.1993) (quoting Southard v. Director, OWCP, 732 F.2d 66, 71 (6th Cir.1984)).

III.

As part of its provisions, the Black Lung Benefits Act "provide[s] benefits ... to coal miners who are totally disabled 1 due to pneumoconiosis." 2 30 U.S.C. § 901(a). In order to establish entitlement to benefits, a claimant must prove that: (1) he suffers from pneumoconiosis; (2) the pneumoconiosis arose out of coal mine employment; and, (3) the pneumoconiosis is totally disabling. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 718.2, 718.202--718.205; Adams v. Director, OWCP, 886 F.2d 818, 820 (6th Cir.1989). In bringing a claim for benefits, the claimant bears the burden of proving each element of his claim by a preponderance of the evidence, except insofar as he is aided by a presumption. See 20 C.F.R. § 717.403; Director, OWCP v. Mangifest, 826 F.2d 1318, 1320 (3d Cir.1987); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 718.203(b), 718.302-.306 (presumptions). Failure to establish any of these elements precludes entitlement. Perry v. Director, OWCP, 9 BLR 1-1 (1986).

In reviewing a miner's claim, an administrative law judge is statutorily obliged "to consider all the evidence and make findings of fact and conclusions of law which adequately set forth the factual and legal basis for his decision." Director, OWCP v. Rowe, 710 F.2d 251, 254-55 (6th Cir.1983). 3 An administrative law judge must weigh all contrary probative evidence 4 and should not limit her inquiry to weighing medical evidence of the same type or category. See Fields v. Island Creek Coal Co., 10 BLR 1-19 (1987); Shedlock v. Bethlehem Mines Corp., 9 BLR 1-195 (1986).

In this case, Peabody expressly "concedes" that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, yet argues that since the ALJ failed to adequately "examine the validity of the reasoning of a medical opinion in light of the studies conducted and the objective indications upon which the medical opinion ... is based," see Rowe, 710 F.2d at 255, the case should be vacated and remanded. Peabody contends that "not a single one of the ALJ's findings" satisfied his duty of explanation. In support of its position, Peabody directs our attention to Barren Creek Coal Co. v. Witmer, 111 F.3d 352 (3d Cir.1997), in which our colleagues in the Third Circuit found that on the facts before them, "the absence of explanation in certain portions of the [administrative law judge]'s Decision and Order render[ed] meaningful review...

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