Whitesburg KY

Black lung ruling should help others get benefits easier

Whitesburg law firm had major role in case Supreme Court wouldn’t hear

The U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of a major coal company’s appeal of the award of federal black lung benefits to a Kentucky widow is expected to make the pursuit of the benefits less of a struggle for many.

The Supreme Court denied Peabody Coal’s appeal of the award of black lung benefits to Eva Elizabeth Hill, a widow from Drakesboro in western Kentucky.

Mrs. Hill’s husband, Arthur Hill, was awarded federal black lung benefits in 1987 because after 41 years in the mines, he was disabled because of black lung. When Mr. Hill passed away in 2000, Mrs. Hill filed for benefits, but was denied because she was not able to prove that black lung caused his death.

For most widows, this would have been the end of the story. But in 2010, as a part of the Affordable Care Act (often referred to as Obamacare), Congress restored the “automatic entitlement” provision to the Black Lung Benefits Act. Under this provision, when a miner who is receiving federal black lung benefits dies, his widow needs only to fill out a simple form to begin receiving benefits.

In 2011, Mrs. Hill filled out that form and was awarded benefits. Since then, Peabody Coal has been challenging her award, arguing that it is unconstitutional to reconsider her entitlement to benefits because her previous denial was affirmed by a federal court.

After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed her award of benefits, Peabody Coal took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

At that point, Mrs. Hill retained attorneys Evan Smith and Stephen Sanders of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg. Smith and Sanders teamed up with the firm Orrick of Washington, D.C., and submitted a brief to the Supreme Court explaining why it should not accept Peabody Coal’s appeal.

The Supreme Court issued an order late last week, declining to review Mrs. Hill’s case. This is a win for Mrs. Hill and leaves her award untouched.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Hill passed away this fall, while her case was pending before the Supreme Court.

Attorney Smith said, “Mrs. Hill’s perseverance in fighting for her widow’s benefits for over 15 years created precedent that should make the pursuit of black lung benefits less of a struggle for other widows going forward.”

Smith and Sanders are two of three lawyers at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center providing free legal services for miners and widows seeking black lung benefits. Changes in the law under the Affordable Care Act have greatly improved the likelihood of winning black lung benefits cases, even if — as Mrs. Hill’s case shows — a claim was denied before.

Mrs. Hill’s case before the Supreme Court was docketed as Peabody Coal Co. v. Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, No. 14-1278. More information about the case is available at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center’s blog about black lung issues at www.blacklungblog.com.

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