Pittston Coal Group v. Sebben

PETITIONER: Pittston Coal Group
LOCATION: Boston Municipal Court

DOCKET NO.: 87-821
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 488 US 105 (1988)
ARGUED: Oct 03, 1988
DECIDED: Dec 06, 1988

Donald B. Ayer - for the Federal Petitioners:
Mark E. Solomons - for the Private Petitioners:
Paul March Smith - on behalf of the respondents
Paul M. Smith - for the Respondents:

Facts of the case


Media for Pittston Coal Group v. Sebben

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 03, 1988 in Pittston Coal Group v. Sebben

William H. Rehnquist:

We will hear argument first this morning in No. 87-821, Pittston Coal Group against Sebben; No. 87-827, Ann McLaughlin versus Sebben; and No. 87-1095, Director versus Broyles.

Mr. Ayer, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Donald B. Ayer:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

The respondents in these cases applied between 1973 and 1980 for Black Lung Benefits under Part C of the Black Lung Benefits Act.

The claims in all instances were denied.

Some of them were in fact denied for the second time, but all of them were denied under the Department of Labor's so-called interim regulation which was adopted in response to the 1977 Amendments to the Black Lung Benefits Act.

The Courts of Appeals below the Eighth Circuit and the Fourth Circuit struck down the denials of these claims on the ground that the interim regulation was incompatible with the 1977 amendments under the provision which is no codified at 30 U.S.C. 902(f)(2), which requires that the criteria under those interim standards be

"not more restrictive than criteria applied by HEW to Part (b) claims filed before July 1, 1973. "

The Department of Labor interim regulation is similar to the HEW rule in many respects.

It is a presumption, and I will talk more later if I get the chance about the details of it.

It also however has some major differences.

One of the differences is a difference that is an issue in this case, and that is the question of how you can invoke what I will now call the causation prong of the two-prong test necessary to invoke the presumption which exists under both the HEW interim rule and the Department of Labor interim rule.

Under the HEW rule, you were required to show that your pneumoconiosis was caused by coal mine employment, and you were allowed an inference, indeed, a presumption to be drawn from the fact that you had ten years of coal mine experience, a presumption that it was in fact caused by coal mine employment.

The difference in this case which is relevant is that under the Department of Labor interim regulation, you simply must have ten years of coal mine employment, and there is no opportunity to prove causation in any other way in order to trigger the presumption.

I should note and I think it is clear from the briefs, that in any event if the presumption is not invoked, there is still an opportunity to prove entitlement to benefits by going back to permanent regulations in effect, allowing you to prove all the elements, that is, total disability, pneumoconiosis, and causation by coal mine employment.

Our position in this case--

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

True as for both B and C?

Donald B. Ayer:

--That is true as to both B and C.

There is some confusion now in the Courts of Appeals as to precisely which set of permanent regulations you go back to, but you have an opportunity under both to go back and prove that--

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

The same kinds of proofs under either?

Donald B. Ayer:

--Well, the permanent regulations are different in some significant respects, and it would take a good long time to go through all the ways in which they are different.

And it's enough off the point here that I would like to pass over that if I can.

The position of the Government in this case is that they are not... this difference is not a more restrictive criteria because the appropriate reading of criteria within the meaning of Section 902(f)(2), looking to the legislative context and trying to make sense out of the amendments passed in 1977 is to read it as essentially medical test criteria.

Now, in that regard, and in order to come to that conclusion, it is important and necessary I think to look to the background of the amendments in 1977 which were in fact... it's clear from the hearings and the debate... a political compromise which like many political compromises had an ambiguous result.

The main focus, if you can say that, of the debate throughout the mid 1970s was that there were different results reached under the HEW interim rules which applied to claims filed prior to 1973 and under the so-called Part B program, and the results reached under the permanent regulations which the Department of Labor was required to apply to Part C claims where the claims were filed after mid-1973.

That was the main focus.

There are different views that were taken in the legislature and in the testimony that was given of that difference.

One view was the view... I can encapsulate in the notion that the Department of Labor approval rate was unreasonably low, and something had to be done about it.

Its approval rate at that time was something under 10 percent.

One of the main focuses of that criticism was the fact that medical test criteria, specifically, the ventilatory study scores, that were applied under the HEW permanent regulations that the Department of Labor had to apply were tougher, significantly tougher, than the ventilatory study scores applied under the HEW interim presumption.