Consolidation Coal v. William Kusch ( 2011 )


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  •                                                                NOT PRECEDENTIAL
    
                          UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
                               FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT
    
                                          _____________
    
                                           No. 09-2297
                                          _____________
    
                                  CONSOLIDATION COAL,
    
                                                      Petitioner
                                               v.
    
                   DIRECTOR OWCP, United States Department of Labor,
                              WILLIAM F. KUSCH,
    
                                                     Respondents
                                          _____________
    
    
                    On Petition for Review of a Decision and Order of the
               Benefits Review Board for the United States Department of Labor
                               (Agency No. 2005-BLA-5078)
    
                                  Argued: January 27, 2011
    
                Before: FUENTES, CHAGARES, and ROTH, Circuit Judges.
    
                                  (Filed: February 16, 2011)
    
    
    William S. Mattingly, Esq. (Argued)
    Wendy G. Adkins
    Jackson Kelly PLLC
    P.O. Box 619
    Morgantown, West Virginia 26507
          Counsel for Petitioner
    
    Timothy C. MacDonnell, Esq.
    Zachary I. Mills
    Amanda K. Streff (Argued)
    Washington and Lee University School of Law
    Lewis Hall
    Legal Clinic, Room 106
    Lexington, Virginia 24450
          Counsel for Respondent Kusch
    
    Deborah Greenfield, Esq.
    Rae Ellen Frank James, Esq.
    Patricia M. Nece, Esq.
    Jeffrey S. Goldberg, Esq. (Argued)
    U.S. Department of Labor
    200 Constitution Avenue, N.W. N-2117
    Washington, D.C. 20210
           Counsel for Respondent OWCP
    
                                          _____________
    
                                            OPINION
                                          _____________
    
    CHAGARES, Circuit Judge.
    
           Consolidation Coal Company (“Consol”) has filed a petition for review of the
    
    decision of the Benefits Review Board affirming the award of benefits to William S.
    
    Kusch, Sr., under the Black Lung Benefits Act (“BLBA”). For the reasons set forth
    
    below, we will deny the petition and affirm the award of benefits to Kusch.
    
                                                 I.
    
           Because we write solely for the benefit of the parties, we will only briefly recite
    
    the facts. Kusch was employed as a coal miner for thirty-three and one-half years, fifteen
    
    of which were spent as an underground miner. During both his years as an underground
    
    and an above-ground miner, Kusch was exposed to extensive amounts of coal dust, and
    
    was not always provided with effective breathing protection. In addition to his exposure
    
    to coal dust, Kusch was a smoker for thirty-two years, quitting for the last time in 1993.
    
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    In 1998, he began to experience shortness of breath and a daily cough that varied in
    
    severity with the weather. Kusch retired from coal mine employment in 2000.
    
           Kusch filed a claim for lifetime disability benefits under the BLBA on July 5,
    
    2001. The BLBA entitles all claimants to a complete pulmonary evaluation, 30 U.S.C.
    
    § 923(b), and Kusch was examined by Dr. Basheda on August 30, 2001. Dr. Basheda
    
    determined that Kusch did not have clinical pneumoconiosis, but that he suffered from an
    
    obstructive lung disease that “may be related to smoking/coal dust,” and that Kusch also
    
    suffered from asthma. Joint Appendix (“JA”) 4. The Department of Labor Claims
    
    Examiner, Robert Bonfanti, wrote to Dr. Basheda to ask him to clarify whether Kusch’s
    
    lung disease was legal pneumoconiosis, and whether it was related to employment in coal
    
    mining. In response, Dr. Basheda stated only that “Mr. Kusch has obstructive lung
    
    disease that may be related to his 34 years in the coal mining industry. . . . Therefore, the
    
    severe airway obstruction seen on his pulmonary tests . . . could certainly be related to
    
    coal dust exposure.” JA 5. The Claims Examiner proposed that Kusch receive benefits,
    
    and the case was forwarded to Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Lesniak for a formal
    
    hearing at the request of Consol. Following the transfer to ALJ Lesniak, Kusch’s counsel
    
    repeatedly tried to contact Dr. Basheda to clarify his opinion on Kusch’s entitlement to
    
    benefits, but never received a response. Kusch then requested a remand for a second
    
    complete pulmonary evaluation, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 725.456(e). ALJ Lesniak
    
    granted the request on January 23, 2003, striking Dr. Basheda’s report from the record
    
    because it was incomplete, and remanding the case.
    
    
    
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           Prior to the remand, but after Dr. Basheda’s initial examination, Kusch was also
    
    examined by Dr. Renn, on November 28, 2001, Dr. Celko, on May 3, 2002, and Dr. Fino,
    
    on October 10, 2002. On remand, Dr. Rasmussen provided Kusch with his second
    
    pulmonary evaluation, which took place on June 24, 2004. Finally, Kusch hired Dr.
    
    Parker to provide an additional opinion on April 29, 2005. None of the doctors
    
    diagnosed Kusch with medical pneumoconiosis. Drs. Parker and Celko, who were hired
    
    by Kusch, as well as Dr. Rasmussen diagnosed Kusch with legal pneumoconiosis, and
    
    Dr. Renn and Dr. Fino, who were hired by Consol, both concluded that Kusch did not
    
    have pneumoconiosis and, instead, that his lung impairment was caused by cigarette
    
    smoking and untreated asthma.
    
           After all of the medical evidence was gathered, the case came to ALJ Leland, who
    
    conducted a hearing and assembled a record on January 8, 2007. On September 28,
    
    2007, the ALJ issued a decision and order awarding benefits to Kusch. In reaching this
    
    decision, the ALJ credited the medical evidence supplied by Drs. Celko, Parker, and
    
    Rasmussen, and found the medical evidence provided by Drs. Renn and Fino not to be
    
    worth great weight.
    
           Consol appealed to the Benefits Review Board. On that appeal Consol not only
    
    challenged the underlying ruling by ALJ Leland, but also sought to be dismissed from the
    
    case due to purported violations of its procedural due process rights. Specifically, it
    
    argued that ALJ Lesniak erred in remanding the case for a second pulmonary evaluation
    
    when the first was complete, and argued that this caused it undue prejudice, mandating its
    
    dismissal from the case. The Benefits Review Board affirmed the award of benefits and
    
                                                 4
    refused to dismiss Consol from the case on October 20, 2008. Consol filed a petition for
    
    review in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on December 23,
    
    2008, and the case was transferred to this Court at Consol’s request because Kusch had
    
    last worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania.
    
                                                 II.
    
           The Department of Labor had jurisdiction pursuant to the Black Lung Benefits
    
    Act, 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq. We have jurisdiction over a petition for review of the
    
    Benefits Review Board under 33 U.S.C. § 921(c), as incorporated by 30 U.S.C. § 932(a),
    
    and 28 U.S.C. § 1331. We must accept the ALJ’s findings of fact so long as they are
    
    supported by substantial evidence. Balsavage v. Director, OWCP, 
    295 F.3d 390
    , 395 (3d
    
    Cir. 2002). In reviewing the ALJ’s conclusions of law, we exercise plenary review.
    
    Director, OWCP v. Barnes & Tucker Co., 
    969 F.2d 1524
    , 1527 (3d Cir. 1992). On issues
    
    committed to the ALJ’s discretion by statute, however, we review only to ensure that his
    
    actions were not arbitrary or capricious. Doroshow v. Harford Life & Accident Ins. Co.,
    
    
    574 F.3d 230
    , 233 (3d Cir. 2009).
    
                                                III.
    
           Consol begins by arguing that the ALJ erred in his consideration of whether
    
    Kusch’s lung disability was caused by exposure to coal dust. It states that the ALJ
    
    improperly applied a presumption of causation, found at 30 U.S.C. § 921(c)(2) and in the
    
    regulations at 20 C.F.R. § 718.203(b), that it argues is only available to cases in which
    
    the claimant is alleging the existence of medical pneumoconiosis. Because Kusch only
    
    
    
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    claims legal pneumoconiosis, Consol requests that we remand the case so that the issue of
    
    causation can be addressed without applying the presumption.
    
           We need not reach the issue of the application of the statutory presumption of
    
    causation in this case because the ALJ’s decision clearly addressed the issue and found
    
    the existence of causation before any reference to the statutory presumption. The ALJ’s
    
    decision sets forth, doctor by doctor, all of the medical evidence provided, including the
    
    doctors’ opinions on the issue of whether Kusch’s disease was caused by coal dust,
    
    smoking, asthma, or some combination of the three. At the conclusion of its analysis of
    
    each doctor’s evidence, the ALJ stated whether he found that doctor’s opinion worthy of
    
    weight. Importantly, the main point of contention between these doctors was whether
    
    coal dust was a substantial contributing factor to Kusch’s pulmonary disability. As a part
    
    of deciding which evidence to credit, the ALJ necessarily also resolved the conflict
    
    regarding causation.
    
           This conclusion is reinforced by the structure of the opinion. Immediately before
    
    the only mention of the § 718.203(b) presumption, the ALJ stated “[a]fter weighing all
    
    the evidence, I find that the miner has established that he has legal pneumoconiosis.” JA
    
    10A. This conclusion is important, as the regulations define legal pneumoconiosis as
    
    “any chronic lung disease or impairment and its sequelae arising out of coal mine
    
    employment.” 20 C.F.R. § 718.201(a)(2). The finding of causation, therefore, was
    
    subsumed in the ALJ’s finding of legal pneumoconiosis. Both the content and structure
    
    of the ALJ’s opinion lead us to conclude that the ALJ determined the issue of causation
    
    without relying on the statutory presumption, and we need not reach the question of that
    
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    presumption’s applicability to cases of legal pneumoconiosis in order to deny the petition
    
    for review.
    
           Consol next challenges the ALJ’s treatment of the evidence in a number of
    
    respects, arguing that he irrationally, selectively, and inconsistently considered the
    
    evidence provided by the medical experts. Consol disagrees with the ALJ’s decision to
    
    discredit the testimony of Drs. Renn and Fino entirely, and also asserts that it was
    
    inconsistent to credit the testimony of Drs. Celko, Parker, and Rasmussen, when these
    
    three experts did not all agree on what caused Kusch’s disability. In discussing this
    
    testimony, Consol urges this Court to wade into the medical details of this case, arguing
    
    that Kusch’s test results are indicative of lung disease caused by smoking and asthma
    
    rather than lung disease caused by exposure to coal dust. It states that it is not asking this
    
    Court to reweigh the evidence, but merely to demand that the ALJ base his decision upon
    
    substantial evidence and resolve any material disputes in the record.
    
           As noted above, we review only to ensure that the ALJ’s findings of fact are
    
    supported by substantial evidence. In this case, regardless of the arguments that Consol
    
    makes to the contrary, we are compelled to conclude that the ALJ based his finding on
    
    substantial evidence. The record here consisted of medical evidence from five experts,
    
    and three of these experts produced reasoned, detailed opinions concluding that Kusch
    
    was totally disabled due to a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that was substantially
    
    contributed to by his exposure to coal dust. This was more than a sufficient basis on
    
    which the ALJ could reasonably base his decision. Further, the ALJ clearly set forth his
    
    reasons for crediting the testimony of Drs. Celko, Parker, and Rasmussen, and rejecting
    
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    the testimony of the other two. We certainly cannot describe his conduct as irrational,
    
    arbitrary, or capricious.
    
           In addition, we reject Consol’s argument that the ALJ did not resolve all material
    
    conflicts in the record. Although we recognize that a failure to resolve material conflicts
    
    would require a remand, Wensel v. Director, OWCP, 
    888 F.2d 14
    , 16 (3d Cir. 1989), the
    
    only conflict that was material in this case was whether Kusch’s pulmonary disability
    
    was caused by coal dust exposure. Importantly, this determination does not require
    
    establishing that coal dust exposure was the sole or even most important factor in the
    
    lung disease; instead, the causation element of pneumoconiosis is met so long as the
    
    disease is “significantly related to, or substantially aggravated by, dust exposure in coal
    
    mine employment.” 20 C.F.R. § 718.201(b). The questions of whether Kusch’s smoking
    
    and asthma also contributed to his pulmonary disability, therefore, are not material to the
    
    issue of whether Kusch’s pulmonary disability was caused by coal mine employment.
    
    Because of this, the ALJ’s failure to resolve any conflict regarding the apportionment of
    
    causation between smoking and asthma is not one that requires a remand. The ALJ
    
    resolved the material issues in this case in concluding that Kusch had a total pulmonary
    
    disability that was related to or aggravated by his exposure to coal dust in mining
    
    employment. For this reason, we will deny the petition for review on the basis of his
    
    consideration of the evidence.
    
           Consol’s final argument is that the ALJ erred in striking Dr. Basheda’s evaluation
    
    and remanding the case for a second complete pulmonary evaluation. Consol states that
    
    Dr. Basheda’s report was merely inconclusive rather than incomplete, as it did include an
    
                                                  8
    opinion on the issue of causation. It further argues that even if this report was not
    
    complete, the ALJ exceeded the scope of his authority under 20 C.F.R. § 725.456(e) in
    
    remanding for a second complete pulmonary evaluation rather than merely remanding for
    
    an opinion on the issue of causation. Consol asserts that this error amounts to a due
    
    process violation that justifies its dismissal from this case and the transferal of any
    
    liability to the Black Lung Trust Fund.
    
           We again find Consol’s arguments to be without merit. Under 20 C.F.R.
    
    § 718.101(a), each claimant is granted an opportunity to “develop the medical evidence
    
    necessary for a determination with respect to each claimant’s entitlement to benefits,”
    
    and 20 C.F.R. § 725.202(d) includes the issue of causation as one element of entitlement.
    
    Dr. Basheda refused to take a position on the issue of causation, even when requested to
    
    clarify his position, and certainly did not state that he believed that the results of the tests
    
    were entirely equivocal and did not allow him to reach a conclusion, as Consol seems to
    
    characterize his position. Instead, Dr. Basheda only stated that the coal dust exposure
    
    “could” or “might” have contributed to Kusch’s pulmonary disability. This certainly is
    
    not definitive on the issue of whether coal dust was responsible for or substantially
    
    aggravated Kusch’s condition, and, therefore, did not provide Kusch with a complete
    
    pulmonary evaluation.
    
           Having concluded that Dr. Basheda did not provide a complete pulmonary
    
    evaluation, we will also affirm the ALJ’s decision to rectify the deficiency by remanding
    
    for a second complete evaluation. Although it is true that 20 C.F.R. § 725.456(e) allows
    
    for a remand with instructions “to develop only such additional evidence as is required,”
    
                                                   9
    it was not arbitrary to conclude that an ultimate opinion on entitlement would require that
    
    the doctor providing it have the opportunity to perform his own evaluation. Further, 20
    
    C.F.R. § 725.351(b)(5) gives the ALJ substantial authority over procedural issues,
    
    including to “[d]o all other things necessary to enable him or her to discharge the duties
    
    of the office.” In the absence of an arbitrary or capricious resolution of a matter
    
    committed to the ALJ’s discretion, we will affirm the ALJ’s decision to remand to the
    
    Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs (“OWCP”) for a second complete
    
    pulmonary evaluation.
    
           Despite the fact that we find no error in the ALJ’s decision to remand the case, we
    
    still must address Consol’s due process argument, as the OWCP concedes that it violated
    
    its own procedures in certifying the medical record as complete and transferring the case
    
    to the ALJ before a complete pulmonary evaluation was, in fact, concluded. The harm
    
    that was suffered from this procedural failing, according to Consol, was that it relied on
    
    Dr. Basheda’s report in developing its own evidence, and that its evidence became stale
    
    due to the length of time that passed between the decision to remand and the second time
    
    that the case came before an ALJ.
    
           We conclude that, Consol’s claimed harm simply does not rise to the level of a
    
    procedural due process violation. Consol’s experts were given an opportunity to
    
    comment on the evidence produced from the second complete pulmonary evaluation and
    
    to update their opinions at depositions that occurred after the remand. In addition, the
    
    ALJ’s decision to reject testimony rested not on the timing of the examinations but on the
    
    reasoning contained in these opinions, and this reasoning was not affected by the delay.
    
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    Simply put, Consol has identified a minor procedural problem, but has not established
    
    any prejudice arising from that error that would rise to the level of a due process violation
    
    that would justify the transfer of liability. See C&K Coal Co. v. Taylor, 
    165 F.3d 254
    ,
    
    259 (3d Cir. 1999) (stating that even an extensive delay in proceedings will not allow for
    
    a transfer of liability absent a demonstration of prejudice that resulted from the
    
    procedural difficulties). Further, this Court’s decision in Venicassa v. Consolidation Coal
    
    Co., 
    137 F.3d 197
     (3d Cir. 1998), makes clear that a transfer of liability is only
    
    appropriate in situations where the operator of the mine could not be determined or where
    
    the errors of the OWCP would leave the claimant unable to recover. Venicassa, 137 F.3d
    
    at 204. Because the errors of the OWCP did not amount to a due process violation, there
    
    is no reason that Kusch cannot still recover from Consol, leaving no justification for
    
    transferring liability. We will decline to dismiss Consol as a party to this case and will
    
    also deny its request to transfer liability to the Black Lung Trust Fund.
    
                                                 IV.
    
           For the foregoing reasons, we will deny the petition for review of the Benefits
    
    Review Board’s decision.
    
    
    
    
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