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Court Upholds Federal Black Lung Benefits Law

March 27, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today upheld a federal law that one state court said makes it too difficult for coal miners who contract ″black lung″ to get a lawyer’s help when seeking benefits.

The justices unanimously reversed a ruling by West Virginia’s highest court that the law, and its system for awarding lawyer fees in black lung benefits cases, violates due-process rights.

″The evidence relied upon by the West Virginia Supreme Court did not remotely establish either that black lung claimants are unable to retain qualified counsel or that the cause of such inability is the attorney’s fees system″ used by the Labor Department, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.

Pneumoconiosis, a chronic respiratory and pulmonary disease commonly called black lung, afflicts numerous coal miners.

Under the Black Lung Benefits Act, Congress provides disability payments to those miners who are unable to work because of the disease.

Those who apply for such benefits are entitled to have a lawyer’s help, and lawyers who assist miners in obtaining benefits have their fees paid by the coal mine operator, its insurance carrier or the government.

To get such fees paid, a lawyer must apply separately to the Labor Department and to the official that presided over the application hearing. No fees award is made until a miner receives a final award of benefits.

West Virginia lawyer George R. Triplett, beginning in 1978, entered into contingent-fee agreements to help about 15 miners seeking black lung benefits. The agreements entitled Triplett to one-fourth of any back benefits collected by the miners.

Since the fees Triplett collected between 1978 and 1983 were never approved by the Labor Department or any court, they were in violation of Labor Department regulations.

The West Virginia State Bar’s Committee on Legal Ethics in 1987 recommended that the state’s highest court suspend Triplett for six months for violating the regulations.

The state Supreme Court of Appeals, in a 3-2 decision in 1988, refused to enforce the suspension.

The state court said the evidence made clear that most lawyers are unwilling to represent miners seeking black lung benefits because of ″inadequate fees″ and the long delays in collecting them.

Once a miner is awarded benefits, the state court said, it often takes ″an additional two years ... for a lawyer to be paid his fee.″ There is no provision for interest payments.

The state court ruling did not bar the Labor Department’s own enforcement of its attorney-fee regulations, but it knocked out the primary method of enforcing those regulations in West Virginia - state bar disciplinary hearings.

Today’s decision said the state court did not have enough solid evidence to make its ruling.

″As to the ... unavailability of attorneys, the court relied upon three lawyers’ assessments,″ Scalia wrote. ″This will not do.″

He said past high court rulings ″made clear that this sort of anecdotal evidence will not overcome the presumption of regularity and constitutionality to which a program established by Congress is entitled.″

Scalia also said there was insufficient proof that the asserted unavailability of lawyers to handle black lung benefits cases could be tied to a fees system.

The case is Labor Department vs. Triplett, 88-1671.

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