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MULLINS COAL V. DIRECTOR, OWC, 484 U. S. 135 (1987)

U.S. Supreme Court

Mullins Coal v. Director, OWC, 484 U.S. 135 (1987)

Mullins Coal Co., Inc. v. Director,

Office of Workers' Compensation

Programs, United States Department of Labor

No. 86-327

Argued October 14, 1987

Decided December 14, 1987

484 U.S. 135


Section 203(a) of the Secretary of Labor's "interim regulations" governing black lung benefits claims filed between July 1, 1973, and April 1, 1980, provides that a claimant who engaged in coal mine employment for at least 10 years is entitled to an "interim presumption" of eligibility for disability benefits if he meets one of four medical requirements: (1) a chest X-ray "establishes" the presence of pneumoconiosis; (2) ventilatory studies establish the presence of any respiratory or pulmonary disease of a specified severity; (3) blood gas studies demonstrate an impairment in the transfer of oxygen from the lungs to the blood; or (4) other medical evidence, including the documented opinion of a physician exercising reasonable medical judgment, establishes a totally disabling respiratory impairment. Section 203(b) provides that "all relevant medical evidence shall be considered" in the adjudication of a claim, and that the interim presumption is rebutted if the evidence establishes (1) that the claimant is doing his usual or comparable work; (2) that he is capable of doing such work; (3) that his disability did not arise, even in part, out of coal mine employment; or (4) that he does not have pneumoconiosis. At the hearing on respondent Ray's 1976 claim, the record proved that Ray had 16 years of coal mine employment and contained one qualifying and seven nonqualifying X-ray interpretations, two qualifying and four nonqualifying ventilatory studies, and one qualifying and five nonqualifying physicians' opinions. After weighing the evidence, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held that Ray was not entitled to the benefit of the interim presumption, and issued an order denying benefits, which the Benefits Review Board affirmed. However, the Court of Appeals reversed, rejecting the Secretary's position that § 203(a) requires the claimant to establish one of the qualifying facts by a preponderance of the evidence. The court held instead that a single item of qualifying evidence is always sufficient to invoke the interim presumption, and, upon finding that the presumption had been invoked in this case by the two qualifying ventilatory studies and the qualifying physician's opinion, remanded for the

Page 484 U. S. 136

ALJ to determine whether the presumption had been rebutted by Ray's employer.

Held: Section 203(a) requires that the claimant establish at least one of the qualifying facts by a preponderance of the evidence. Pp. 484 U. S. 146-160.

(a) Section 203(a)'s plain language does not mandate that the interim presumption be invoked on the basis of a single item of qualifying evidence. The Court of Appeals' reading of § 203(a)(1) as though it merely requires X-ray evidence of the presence of pneumoconiosis ignores the fact that § 203(a)(1) expressly requires an X-ray that actually "establishes" the presence of the disease. It is not the X-ray in isolation that establishes that presence; rather, the regulation must, at a minimum, have reference both to the X-ray itself and to interpretations by qualified experts. The Secretary's view of the regulation, which would render some evidence inadmissible for certain aspects of rebuttal, is not inconsistent with § 203(b)'s requirement that "all relevant evidence shall be received" in adjudicating a claim, since nothing in the Secretary's position prevents all relevant evidence from being considered at some point in the proof process, and nothing in the regulation requires that all relevant medical evidence be considered at the rebuttal phase. Moreover, the Secretary's interpretation is not rendered internally inconsistent by his position that, if the claimant invokes the presumption by establishing the existence of pneumoconiosis under § 203(a)(1), the employer may not try to disprove the disease under § 203(b)(4), since nothing in the regulation requires each rebuttal subsection to be fully available in each case. Furthermore, the Secretary's position will not permit an employer to prevail solely on a single negative X-ray interpretation in violation of a statutory provision prohibiting claim denials on that basis. Thus, the Secretary's interpretation of § 203 is entirely consistent with the regulation's text. Pp. 484 U. S. 146-152.

(b) The Court of Appeals erred in finding that the legislative history of the black lung benefits statutes requires a single-item-of-evidence invocation burden. Section 203(a)'s interim presumption derives directly from, and is substantially similar to, an interim presumption for black lung claims promulgated by the Social Security Administration, under which ALJs have routinely weighed the evidence at the invocation stage without judicial objection, and often with explicit court approval. Pp. 484 U. S. 152-155.

(c) The fact that a single item of qualifying evidence may often be sufficient to invoke the interim presumption does not compel the conclusion that such evidence must always be sufficient. The factual understanding underlying the presumption -- that it is highly probable that a long-term coal miner is totally disabled by pneumoconiosis arising from his employment if he can prove any of the regulation's medical requirements

Page 484 U. S. 137

-- is not present when the claimant merely offers a single item of qualifying evidence that is overcome by more reliable conflicting evidence. Similarly, the policy concern underlying the presumption -- that long-term miners who are truly diseased should not have to undertake the difficult task of proving that their diseases are totally disabling and coal mine related, or that they are in fact pneumoconiosis -- is not implicated if a miner is not actually suffering from the type of ailment with which Congress was concerned. Thus, the Secretary's reading of the interim presumption's invocation burden is eminently reasonable, and deserving of substantial deference. Pp. 484 U. S. 156-160.

785 F.2d 424, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which, REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 484 U. S. 161.

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