United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
matter is before the court on Defendant's Motion to
Dismiss. (Doc. # 5). The Motion requires the court to decide
whether it has subject matter jurisdiction over
Plaintiff's claim and, if so, whether Plaintiff has
stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. See
Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6). The court concludes the
answer to both is yes. Thus, as more fully explained below,
Defendant's Motion to Dismiss is due to be denied.
Factual and Procedural Background
Verby Burton is the widow of a deceased coal miner, Allan
Burton, who Defendant Drummond Company employed to work in
its coal mines in Alabama. (Doc. # 1 at ¶¶ 8-12).
Allan Burton died in 2015 from coal workers'
pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease. (Doc. #
15 at 9).
to his death, Allan Burton filed a claim for benefits under
the Black Lung Benefits Act (“BLBA”) with the
Department of Labor (“DOL”). (Doc. # 1 at ¶
13; Doc. # 15 at 4-7). After his death, Verby Burton filed an
additional and separate claim for survivor's benefits
under the Act. (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 14; Doc. # 15 at 11-12).
The DOL granted both Allan and Verby Burton's claims.
(Id. at ¶¶ 15-22; Doc. # 15 at 24-55,
91-100). On Allan's claim, the DOL ordered Drummond to
(1) pay $12, 197.90 in retroactive benefits to Verby (on
behalf of Allan) and (2) reimburse the Black Lung Disability
Trust Fund $18, 897.70 for interim benefits paid to Allan
prior to his death. (Doc. # 15 at 54). On Verby's claim,
the DOL ordered Drummond to (1) begin paying Verby monthly
benefits of $644.50 per month and (2) reimburse the Trust
Fund $12, 832.40 for interim benefits paid to Verby beginning
in April 2015, when the DOL initially determined she was
eligible for benefits. (Id. at 99). In its
compensation orders, the DOL informed Drummond that “by
failing to initiate benefits . . . within 10 days of the date
payment is due, [Drummond] may be subject to payments of
additional compensation of up to 20% of the amount due,
” pursuant to 33 U.S.C. § 914(f) and 20 C.F.R.
§ 725.607. (Doc. # 15 at 55, 100). The orders also
explained that “failure to pay benefits as ordered may
result in enforcement of the final award in Federal District
Court” and that “[a]n appeal does not stay this
penalty unless an Order staying payments has been issued by
the Board or Court.” (Id.).
declined to pay the benefits and instead appealed the
decisions of the administrative law judges
(“ALJs”) to the Benefits Review Board.
See 33 U.S.C. § 921(b); (Docs. # 1 at ¶
26; 5-1 at 2-4). Drummond did not obtain an order staying
payment of the benefits from the Board (Doc. # 1 at ¶
24), so the compensation orders became effective, and payment
became due, after the orders issued. 20 C.F.R. §
725.502(a)(1). Because Drummond failed to pay the benefits it
owed Verby Burton during the pendency of its appeals, the
Black Lung Disability Trust Fund began paying Verby
Burton's benefits as provided for by statute, 26 U.S.C.
§ 9501(d)(1)(A), and the BLBA's implementing
regulations, 20 C.F.R. § 725.522(a). (Doc. # 1 at ¶
Benefits Review Board eventually affirmed in part and vacated
in part the ALJ's decision on Allan Burton's claim
and remanded the claim to the ALJ. (Doc. # 15 at 106-12). On
remand, the ALJ considered additional medical evidence as
required by the Board's decision but again awarded
benefits on behalf of Allan Burton. (Id. at 127-37).
Drummond then withdrew its appeal of Verby Burton's claim
based on its earlier concession that Verby would be
automatically entitled to benefits if Allan's claim
succeeded. (Id. at 139; Doc. # 5-1 at 3). The
DOL's compensation order awarding benefits on Verby
Burton's claim (Doc. # 15 at 99-100) became final after
Drummond withdrew its appeal. The DOL also issued a new
compensation order following the ALJ's decision on remand
regarding Allan Burton's claim. (Id. at 142).
That compensation order awarded the same benefits as the
DOL's first compensation order on Allan Burton's
claim-$12, 197.90 in retroactive benefits to Verby Burton (on
behalf of Allan) and a reimbursement of $18, 897.70 to the
Black Lung Disability Trust Fund for interim benefits paid to
Allan prior to his death. (Id.). Once the
compensation orders became final, Drummond paid all of the
benefits listed in the final compensation orders and
reimbursed the Trust Fund for compensation it had paid Verby
Burton during the pendency of Drummond's appeals. (Doc. #
5-1 at 4).
24, 2018, Verby Burton filed this action against Drummond
seeking additional compensation and interest she claims
Drummond owes her under the DOL's final compensation
orders, pursuant to 33 U.S.C. § 914(f) and 20 C.F.R.
§ 725.607. Before addressing the merits of Ms.
Burton's claim, the court first reviews the relevant
Federal Black Lung Program Statutory Framework
federal black lung program derives from several related
statutes. In 1969, Congress enacted the Federal Coal Mine
Health and Safety Act, Pub. L. No. 91-173, 83 Stat. 742
(1969) (codified as amended at 30 U.S.C. § 801 et
seq.). Title IV of that Act established a benefits
program for coal miners who were totally disabled by
pneumoconiosis and for the surviving dependents of miners who
died from the disease. See 30 U.S.C. § 901.
Congress has amended Title IV several times since it was
enacted, including once in 1972 through the Black Lung
Benefits Act, Pub. L. No. 92-303, 86 Stat. 150 (1972) and
again in 1977 with the Black Lung Benefits Reform Act of
1977, Pub. L. No. 95-239, 92 Stat. 95 (1978) (both codified
as amended at 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq.). At the
same time it passed the 1977 Reform Act, Congress also passed
the Black Lung Benefits Revenue Act of 1977, Pub. L. No.
95-227, 92 Stat. 11 (1978), which established the Black Lung
Disability Trust Fund. The Trust Fund exists to pay benefits
if no responsible coal mine operator can be identified or if
the operator fails to pay benefits after they become due. 26
U.S.C. § 9501(d)(1); 20 C.F.R. §§ 725.1(c),
the Black Lung Benefits Act (“BLBA”) and its
amendments, disabled miners or their surviving dependents may
file benefits claims with the Secretary of Labor, who is
responsible for processing the claims and awarding benefits
where appropriate. See 30 U.S.C. §§
902(c), 932(a); 20 C.F.R. § 725.1(a), (c). The Secretary
is also responsible for promulgating the Act's
implementing regulations. 30 U.S.C. § 932(a); 20 C.F.R.
§ 725.1(a). Individual coal mine operators are primarily
liable for benefits, though, as explained above, the Trust
Fund may pay benefits if no responsible operator can be
identified or if the operator fails to pay benefits during
the pendency of its appeal, after an initial finding of
liability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 725.1(c), 725.522(a).
claims are first evaluated and adjudicated by a district
director within the Department of Labor. Id.
§§ 725.350(b), 725.401. If either a BLBA claimant
or a mine operator is dissatisfied with the district
director's determination of benefits, the party may
request a hearing before an ALJ. Id. §§
725.421, 725.451. Any party dissatisfied with an ALJ's
decision may appeal to the Benefits Review Board, and the
Board's decisions are in turn reviewable by the U.S.
Courts of Appeals. 33 U.S.C. § 921(b)-(c); 20 C.F.R.
§§ 725.481, 725.482.
procedural and other provisions contained in the Longshore
and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act
(“LHWCA”), 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq.,
govern the adjudication of BLBA claims filed on or after
January 1, 1974. See 30 U.S.C. § 932(a)
(incorporating the LHWCA's provisions, subject to
enumerated exceptions); 20 C.F.R. § 725.1(j). Among the
provisions of the LHWCA incorporated into the BLBA are 33
U.S.C. §§ 914(f) and 921(d). This case turns on the
operation of these two provisions.
914(f) provides additional compensation for BLBA
beneficiaries when an operator fails to timely pay an award,
unless the operator appeals the award and obtains an order
staying payment. Section 914(f) states:
If any compensation, payable under the terms of an award, is
not paid within ten days after it becomes due, there shall be
added to such unpaid compensation an amount equal to 20 per
centum thereof, which shall be paid at the same time as, but
in addition to, such compensation, unless review of the
compensation order making such award is had as provided in
[33 U.S.C. § 921] and an order staying payment has been
issued by the Board or court.
33 U.S.C. § 914(f). The BLBA's implementing
regulations provide that an award of benefits “shall be
considered due after the issuance of an effective order
requiring the payment of benefits by a district director,
administrative law judge, Benefits Review Board, or court,
notwithstanding the pendency of . . . an appeal to the Board
or court.” 20 C.F.R. § 725.502(a)(1). The only
exception to this rule is “where the payment of such
benefits has been stayed by the Benefits Review Board or
appropriate court.” Id. The regulations
further provide that § 914(f)'s provision of
additional compensation for late payments applies with equal
force where an operator fails to timely pay an award and the
Trust Fund pays the benefits in its stead. See 20
C.F.R. § 725.607(b).
§ 914(f) does not contain an independent enforcement
mechanism. It does not, for instance, create a private right
of action authorizing a BLBA beneficiary to sue in federal
court to collect 20 percent additional compensation. This is
where § 921(d) comes into play.
921(d) provides a private cause of action for BLBA
beneficiaries to enforce a final benefits award in ...