United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit
January 8, 2018
from the United States District Court for the District of
Columbia (No. 1:16-cv-00669)
E. Solomons argued the cause and filed the briefs for
appellant. With him on the briefs was Laura Metcoff Klaus.
J. Aguilar, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the
cause for federal appellees. With him on the brief were
Jessie K. Liu, U.S. Attorney, and Mark B. Stern, Attorney.
Before: Millett and Wilkins, Circuit Judges, and Edwards,
Senior Circuit Judge.
Edwards, Senior Circuit Judge.
Coal, Inc. ("Arch") appeals from an order of the
District Court dismissing its complaint for want of
jurisdiction. Arch's complaint seeks an injunction and
declaratory relief to block the Department of Labor
("Department") from pursuing administrative actions
to determine whether the company is obligated to pay benefits
to certain of its former employees under the Black Lung
Benefits Act ("BLBA" or "Act"), 30 U.S.C.
§§ 901-45 (2012). The District Court dismissed the
complaint on the ground that the BLBA "assigns exclusive
jurisdiction" over Arch's challenges "to the
Department's administrative process and then the relevant
federal court of appeals." Arch Coal, Inc. v.
Hugler, 242 F.Supp.3d 13, 18 (D.D.C. 2017). We agree and
therefore affirm the judgment of the District Court.
BLBA grants coal miners the right to monthly benefits
payments from a former employer in the event they suffer from
black lung disease as a result of employment. The Department
sends a "notice of claim" to coal mine operators
who are potentially liable for benefits payments under the
Act. See 33 U.S.C. § 919(b) (2012)
(incorporated by 30 U.S.C. § 932(a)); 20 C.F.R. §
725.407 (2017). A potentially responsible operator may
contest its liability before a District Director within the
agency, 20 C.F.R. § 725.408 (2017), request a formal
hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"),
id. §§ 725.419(a), 725.450-725.480, and
receive review of the ALJ's decision before the Benefits
Review Board ("Board"), 33 U.S.C. § 921(b)(3)
(2012) (incorporated by 30 U.S.C. § 932(a)); 20 C.F.R.
§ 725.481 (2017). Final orders of the Board may then be
appealed to a U.S. court of appeals. 33 U.S.C. § 921(c).
November 12, 2015, the Department issued a bulletin to its
staff, Bulletin No. 16-01 ("Bulletin"), instructing
District Directors to send notices of claims to Arch for
certain black lung benefits claims filed against a company
that had acquired Arch's BLBA liabilities. Arch then
brought this action in the District Court seeking to enjoin
the administrative proceedings. Arch alleged that it was not
liable for the payments under the BLBA and that the Bulletin
violated the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA")
as a legislative "rule" published without notice
and comment. The District Court concluded that it lacked
subject matter jurisdiction over these claims.
BLBA's comprehensive scheme of administrative review,
followed by judicial review in a court of appeals, makes it
clear that Congress implicitly precluded district court
jurisdiction over the claims to which the BLBA applies.
See, e.g., Elgin v. Dep't of Treasury,
567 U.S. 1, 10 (2012); Thunder Basin Coal Co. v.
Reich, 510 U.S. 200, 207-09 (1994); Jarkesy v.
SEC, 803 F.3d 9, 16-17 (D.C. Cir. 2015). We therefore
agree with our sister circuits that "the scheme of
review established by Congress for determinations of black
lung disability benefits was intended to be exclusive."
Compensation Dep't of Dist. Five, United Mine Workers
of Am. v. Marshall, 667 F.2d 336, 340 (3d Cir. 1981);
see also Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co. v.
Donovan, 713 F.2d 1243 (6th Cir. 1983). Accordingly,
Arch must exhaust its administrative remedies and secure a
final order from the Board before it may seek review from
Statutory and Regulatory Background
BLBA imposes liability on coal mine operators for payment of
monthly benefits to coal miners who contract pneumoconiosis,
or black lung disease, from their employment in the mines.
See 30 U.S.C. §§ 922(a), 932(c). In order
for an operator to be held liable, it must have employed the
miner for at least one year and be "capable of assuming
its liability for a claim." 20 C.F.R. § 725.494(c),
(e) (2017). If the operator that most recently employed the
miner is not liable, the miner's next most recent
employing operator may be found responsible. Id.
created a comprehensive administrative scheme to adjudicate
benefits claims under the Act. See 30 U.S.C. §
932(a) (incorporating the procedures outlined in the
Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act into the
BLBA). The process begins when a disabled coal miner or a
surviving dependent of a miner who died of black lung disease
files a claim with the District Director in the Department of
Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 725.303, 401 (2017). The
District Director investigates the claim to determine whether
the claimant is eligible for benefits and which employer, if
any, is potentially responsible under the BLBA. See
id. §§ 725.401-423. If the claimant is
eligible for BLBA benefits but a potentially liable operator
cannot be identified, the benefits are paid from the
federally administered Black Lung Disability Trust Fund,
which is financed by a tax on coal. See 30 U.S.C.
§ 934; 26 U.S.C. § 9501(d)(1)(B) (2012). But if the
District Director identifies a potentially liable operator,
the District Director sends that operator a "notice of
claim." See 33 U.S.C. § 919(b)
(incorporated by 30 U.S.C. § 932(a)); 20 C.F.R. §
the operator receives a notice of claim, it becomes a party
to the administrative proceedings. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 725.407(b). The operator may then contest its
identification as a potentially liable operator before the
District Director, id. § 725.408(a)(1)-(2), and
submit documentary evidence in support of its position,
id. § 725.408(b)(1). The District Director may
conduct an informal conference with the parties, at which the
parties have the right to representation. Id. §
725.416. The District Director may also "permit a
reasonable time for the submission of additional evidence
following a conference." Id. § 725.417(b).
"Within 20 days after the termination of all conference
proceedings, the district director shall prepare and send to
the parties a proposed decision and order" designating
the responsible operator liable for the payment of benefits.
Id. § 725.417(c). That document "must
contain findings of fact and conclusions of law" in
support of any designation of a responsible operator.
Id. § 725.418(b).
party may appeal the District Director's decision and
request a formal hearing before an ALJ within thirty days.
Id. §§ 725.419(d), 725.450-725.480
(detailing hearing procedures before the ALJ); 33 U.S.C.
§ 919(d). The ALJ must make a de novo determination of
the operator's liability after a "fair hearing"
in which the parties and witnesses may testify; and the ALJ
"may entertain the objections of any party to the
evidence submitted." 20 C.F.R. § 725.455(a)-(c)
(2017). The ALJ's decision may be appealed to the Board,
which is "authorized to hear and determine appeals
raising a substantial question of law or fact." 33
U.S.C. § 921(b)(3); 20 C.F.R. § 725.481. Once the
Board issues a final decision, an aggrieved party may obtain
judicial review ...