Eleventh Circuit Clarifies Automatic Entitlement Provision of Black Lung Benefits Act

Yesterday, the Eleventh Circuit resolved an ambiguity regarding when miners’ survivors can recover benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act.  Pursuant to the Act, survivors can recover in two ways.  First, they can prove that the miner died from a lung disease caused by pneumoconiosis.  Alternatively, they can proceed under the “automatic entitlement” provision (30 U.S.C. 932(l)), which states that “In no case shall the eligible survivors of a miner who was determined to be eligible to receive benefits … at the time of his or her death be required to file a new claim for benefits, or refile or otherwise revalidate the claim of such miner (emphasis added).” The Eleventh Circuit had to interpret the bold language in a pair of consolidated cases.

The mining companies argued that the phrase “at the time of his or her death” modifies the verb “determined,” such that a miner would have had to have received a formal determination of the miner’s eligibility before he or she died. The surviving spouses (and the U.S. Department of Labor in support) argued that the phrase “at the time of his or her death” modifies the adjective “eligible,” such that the miner would have just had to be eligible at the time of his or her death regardless of whether a formal determination had been issued.

The difference in interpretation matters because in both cases, the miners were not formally determined to be eligible for benefits until after their deaths. They were “eligible” at the time but died before the determinations were made.

Relying on the traditional “last antecedent” canon and the avoidance of creating arbitrary distinctions between identically situated claimants, the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the surviving spouses and the government. The court explained, “we can think of no common-sense reason why Congress would have wanted to differentiate between two otherwise-identical survivors solely by virtue of the fact that the ALJ in charge of one miner’s case got around to determining eligibility before he died while the ALJ handling the other’s case didn’t.” Both surviving spouses were thus due survivor benefits under the Act’s automatic entitlement provision.

The cases were No. 17-14468 and No. 17-15782 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

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