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Arch Coal, Inc. v. Acosta

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

April 27, 2018

Arch Coal, Inc., Appellant
v.
R. Alexander Acosta, in his official capacity as Secretary of Labor and Department of Labor, Appellees

          Argued January 8, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:16-cv-00669)

          Mark E. Solomons argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant. With him on the briefs was Laura Metcoff Klaus.

          Daniel 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.

          OPINION

          Edwards, Senior Circuit Judge.

         Arch 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.

         The 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).

         On 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.

         The 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 this court.

         I. Background

         A. Statutory and Regulatory Background

         The 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. § 725.495(a)(3).

         Congress 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. § 725.407(b).

         Once 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).

         Either 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 ...


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