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USERY v. TURNER ELKHORN MINING CO. ET AL.

*fn*: July 1, 1976.

USERY, SECRETARY OF LABOR, ET AL
v.
TURNER ELKHORN MINING CO. ET AL.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY

Author: Marshall

[ 428 U.S. Page 5]

 MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Twenty-two coal mine operators (Operators) brought this suit to test the constitutionality of certain aspects of Title IV of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, 83 Stat. 792, as amended by the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972, 86 Stat. 150, 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq. (1970 ed. and Supp. IV). The Operators, potentially liable under the amended Act to compensate certain miners, former miners, and their survivors for death or total disability due to penumoconiosis arising out of employment in coal mines, sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the Secretary of Labor and the

[ 428 U.S. Page 6]

     Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, who are responsible for the administration of the Act and the promulgation of regulations under the Act.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, a three-judge District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2282 and 2284, found the amended Act constitutional on its face, except in regard to two provisions concerning the determination of a miner's total disability due to pneumoconiosis. The court enjoined the Secretary of Labor from further application of those two provisions. 385 F. Supp. 424 (1974). After granting a stay of the three-judge court's order, 421 U.S. 944 (1975), we noted probable jurisdiction of the cross-appeals. 421 U.S. 1010 (1975). We conclude that the amended Act, as interpreted, is constitutionally sound against the Operators' challenges.

I

Coal workers' pneumoconiosis - black lung disease - affects a high percentage of American coal miners with severe, and frequently crippling, chronic respiratory impairment.*fn1 The disease is caused by long-term inhalation of coal dust.*fn2 Coal workers' pneumoconiosis

[ 428 U.S. Page 7]

     (hereafter pneumoconiosis) is generally diagnosed on the basis of X-ray opacities indicating nodular lesions on the lungs of a patient with a long history of coal dust exposure. As the Surgeon General has stated, however, post-mortem examination data have indicated a greater prevalence of the disease than X-ray diagnosis reveals.

According to the Surgeon General, pneumoconiosis is customarily classified as "simple" or "complicated."*fn3 Simple pneumoconiosis, ordinarily identified by X-ray opacities of a limited extent, is generally regarded by physicians as seldom productive of significant respiratory impairment. Complicated pneumoconiosis, generally far more serious, involves progressive massive fibrosis as a complex reaction to dust and other factors (which may include tuberculosis or other infection), and usually*fn4 produces significant pulmonary impairment and marked respiratory disability. This disability limits the victim's physical capabilities, may induce death by cardiac failure, and may contribute to other causes of death.*fn5

Removing the miner from the source of coal dust has so far proved the only effective means of preventing the contraction of pneumoconiosis, and once contracted the disease is irreversible in both its simple and complicated stages. No therapy has been developed. Finally, because the disease is progressive,*fn6 at least in its

[ 428 U.S. Page 8]

     complicated stage, its symptoms may become apparent only after a miner has left the coal mines.

In order to curb the incidence of pneumoconiosis, Congress provided in Title II of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, § 201 et seq., 30 U.S.C. § 841 et seq., for limits on the amount of dust to be permitted in the ambient air of coal mines. Additionally, in view of the then-established prevalence of irreversible pneumoconiosis among miners, and the insufficiency of state compensation programs, Congress passed Title IV of the 1969 Act, § 401 et seq., 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq., to provide benefits to afflicted miners and their survivors. These benefit provisions were subsequently broadened by the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972. 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq. (1970 ed., Supp. IV).

As amended, the Act divides the financial responsibility for payment of benefits into three parts. Under Part B of Title IV, §§ 411-414, 30 U.S.C. §§ 921-924 (1970 ed. and Supp. IV), claims filed between December 30, 1969, the date of enactment, and June 30, 1973, are adjudicated by the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and paid by the United States.*fn7

Under Part C of Title IV, §§ 421-431, 30 U.S.C. §§ 931-941 (1970 ed. and Supp. IV), claims filed after December 31, 1973, are to be processed under an applicable state workmen's compensation law approved by the Secretary of Labor under the standards set forth in § 421, 30 U.S.C. § 931 (1970 ed. and Supp. IV). In

[ 428 U.S. Page 9]

     the absence of such an approved state program, and to date no state program has been approved, claims are to be filed with and adjudicated by the Secretary of Labor, and paid by the mine operators. § 422, 30 U.S.C. § 932 (1970 ed. and Supp. IV). Under § 422 an operator who is entitled to a hearing in connection with these claims is liable for Part C benefits with respect to death or total disability due to pneumoconiosis arising out of employment in a mine for which the operator is responsible. The operator's liability for Part C benefits covers the period from January 1, 1974, to December 30, 1981. Payments of benefits under Part C are to the same categories of persons - a miner or certain survivors - and in the same amounts, as under Part B. §§ 422 (c), (d); see § 412(a), 30 U.S.C. § 922 (a) (1970 ed. and Supp. IV).*fn8

Claims filed during the transition period between the Federal Government benefit provision under Part B, and state plan or operator benefit provision under Part C - that is, July 1 to December 31, 1973 - are adjudicated

[ 428 U.S. Page 10]

     under § 415 of Part B, 30 U.S.C. § 925 (1970 ed., Supp. IV), by the Secretary of Labor. The United States is responsible for payment of these claims until December 31, 1973. Responsible operators, having been notified of a claim and entitled to participate in a hearing thereon, are thereafter liable for benefits as if the claim had been filed pursuant to Part C and § 422 had been applicable to the operator.

The Act provides that a miner shall be considered "totally disabled," and consequently entitled to compensation, "when pneumoconiosis prevents him from engaging in gainful employment requiring the skills and abilities comparable to those of any employment in a mine or mines in which he previously engaged with some regularity and over a substantial period of time." § 402 (f), 30 U.S.C. § 902 (f) (1970 ed., Supp. IV).*fn9 The Act also prescribes several "presumptions" for use in determining compensable disability.*fn10 Under § 411 (c)(3), a miner

[ 428 U.S. Page 11]

     shown by X-ray or other clinical evidence to be afflicted with complicated pneumoconiosis is "irrebuttably presumed" to be totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis; if he has died, it is irrebuttably presumed that he was totally disabled by pneumoconiosis at the time of his death, and that his death was due to pneumoconiosis. 30 U.S.C. § 921 (c)(3) (1970 ed., Supp. IV). In any event, the presumption operates conclusively to establish entitlement to benefits.

The other presumptions are each explicitly rebuttable by an operator seeking to avoid liability. There are three such presumptions. First, if a miner with 10 or more years' employment in the mines contracts pneumoconiosis, it is rebuttably presumed that the disease arose out of such employment. § 411 (c)(1), 30 U.S.C. § 921 (c)(1) (1970 ed., Supp. IV). Second, if a miner with 10 or more years' employment in the mines died from a "respirable disease," it is rebuttably presumed that his death was due to pneumoconiosis. § 411 (c)(2), 30 U.S.C. § 921 (c)(2) (1970 ed., Supp. IV). Finally, if a miner, or the survivor of a miner, with 15 or more years' employment in underground coal mines is able, despite the absence of clinical evidence of complicated pneumoconiosis, to demonstrate a totally disabling respiratory or pulmonary impairment, the Act rebuttably presumes that the total disability is due to pneumoconiosis, that the miner was totally disabled by pneumoconiosis when he died, and that the miner's death was due to pneumoconiosis.§ 411 (c)(4), 30 U.S.C. § 921 (c)(4) (1970 ed., Supp. IV).*fn11 Section 411 (c)(4) specifically provides: "The

[ 428 U.S. Page 12]

     Secretary may rebut [this latter] presumption only by establishing that (A) such miner does not, or did not, have pneumoconiosis, or that (B) his respiratory or pulmonary impairment did not arise out of, or in connection with, employment in a coal mine." Moreover, under § 413 (b), 30 U.S.C. § 923 (b) (1970 ed., Supp. IV), none of these three rebuttable presumptions may be defeated solely on the basis of a chest X-ray.*fn12

II

In initiating this suit against the defendant Secretaries (hereafter Federal Parties), the Operators contended that the amended Act is unconstitutional insofar as it requires the payment of benefits with respect to miners who left employment in the industry before the effective date of the Act; that the Act's definitions, presumptions, and limitations on rebuttal evidence unconstitutionally impair the operators' ability to defend against benefit claims; and that certain regulations promulgated by the Secretary of Labor regarding the apportionment of liability for benefits among operators, and the provision of medical benefits, are inconsistent with the Act and constitutionally defective.

[ 428 U.S. Page 13]

     The three-judge District Court held that all issues as to the validity of the challenged regulations were within the jurisdiction of a single district judge, and the court entered an order so remanding them. 385 F. Supp., at 426. The District Court upheld each challenged statutory provision as constitutional, with two exceptions. First, the District Court held that § 411 (c)(3)'s irrebuttable presumption is unconstitutional as an unreasonable and arbitrary legislative finding of total disability "in terms other than those provided by the Act as standards for total disability." 385 F. Supp., at 430. Second, reading the limitation on evidence in rebuttal to § 411 (c)(4)'s presumption of total disability due to pneumoconiosis to apply to an operator's defense in a § 415 transition-period case, the District Court found that limitation unconstitutional in two respects. It held the limitation arbitrary and unreasonable in not permitting a rebuttal showing that the case of pneumoconiosis afflicting the miner was not disabling. 385 F. Supp., at 430. And taking the provision to mean that an operator may defend against liability only on the ground that the pneumoconiosis did not arise out of employment in any coal mine, rather than on the ground that it did not arise out of employment in a coal mine for which the operator was responsible, the District Court found the provision an unreasonable and arbitrary limitation on rebuttal evidence relevant and proper under § 422 (c), 30 U.S.C. § 932 (c). 385 F. Supp., at 430-431. The District Court accordingly entered an order declaring unconstitutional, and enjoining the Secretary of Labor from seeking to apply, § 411 (c)(3)'s irrebuttable presumption and § 411 (c)(4)'s limitation on rebuttable evidence.

The Operators' appeal, No. 74-1316, reasserts the constitutional challenges rejected by the District Court.

[ 428 U.S. Page 14]

     The appeal of the Federal Parties, No. 74-1302, seeks reversal of the declaration and injunction respecting the constitutionality of §§ 411 (c)(3) and (4). Neither side here questions the District Court's decision not to address the issues raised with respect to the Secretary of Labor's regulations. As we have already noted, we uphold the statute against all the constitutional contentions properly presented here. Because we read the limitation on rebuttal evidence in § 411 (c)(4) as inapplicable to the Operators, however, we vacate that portion of the District Court's order which invalidates that limitation.

III

The Federal Parties direct our attention initially to National Independent Coal Operators Assn. v. Brennan, 372 F. Supp. 16 (DC), summarily aff'd, 419 U.S. 955 (1974), which raised a number of issues identical to those presented here. Our summary affirmance in that case did not foreclose the District Court's determination of unconstitutionality regarding §§ 411 (c)(3) and (4), those issues not having been before us on the appeal. Several questions presented here - most notably those of retroactivity and preclusion of sole reliance on X-ray testimony evidence - were raised and decided in National Independent Coal Operators Assn. v. Brennan, but having heard oral argument and entertained full briefing on these issues together with the other questions raised in the case, we proceed to treat them here more fully. Cf. Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 670-671 (1974).

IV

The Operators contend that the amended Act violates the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause by requiring them to compensate former employees who terminated their work in the industry before the Act was passed,

[ 428 U.S. Page 15]

     and the survivors of such employees.*fn13 The Operators accept the liability imposed upon them to compensate employees working in coal mines now and in the future who are disabled by pneumoconiosis; and they recognize Congress' power to create a program for compensation of disabled inactive coal miners. But the Operators complain that to impose liability upon them for former employees' disabilities is impermissibly to charge them with an unexpected liability for past, completed acts that were legally proper and, at least in part, unknown to be dangerous at the time.

It is by now well established that legislative Acts adjusting the burdens and benefits of economic life come to the Court with a presumption of constitutionality, and that the burden is on one complaining of a due process violation to establish that the legislature has acted in an arbitrary and irrational way. See, e.g., Ferguson v. Skrupa, 372 U.S. 726 (1963); Williamson v. Lee Optical Co., 348 U.S. 483, 487-488 (1955). And this Court long ago upheld against due process attack the competence of Congress to allocate the interlocking economic rights and duties of employers and employees upon workmen's compensation principles analogous to those enacted here, regardless of contravening arrangements between employer and employee. New York Central R. Co. v. White, 243 U.S. 188 (1917); see also Philadelphia, B. & W. R. Co. v. Schubert, 224 U.S. 603 (1912).

To be sure, insofar as the Act requires compensation for disabilities bred during employment terminated

[ 428 U.S. Page 16]

     before the date of enactment, the Act has some retrospective effect - although, as we have noted, the Act imposed no liability on operators until 1974.*fn14 And it may be that the liability imposed by the Act for disabilities suffered by former employees was not anticipated at the time of actual employment.*fn15 But our cases are clear that legislation readjusting rights and burdens is not unlawful solely because it upsets otherwise settled expectations. See Fleming v. Rhodes, 331 U.S. 100 (1947); Carpenter v. Wabash R. Co., 309 U.S. 23 (1940); Norman v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 294 U.S. 240 (1935); Home Bldg. & Loan Assn. v. Blaisdell, 290 U.S. 398 (1934); Louisville & Nashville R. Co. v. Mottley, 219 U.S. 467 (1911). This is true even though the effect of the legislation is to impose a new duty or liability based on past acts. See Lichter v. United States, 334 U.S. 742 (1948); Welch v. Henry, 305 U.S. 134 (1938); Funkhouser v. Preston Co., 290 U.S. 163 (1933).

It does not follow, however, that what Congress can legislate prospectively it can legislate retrospectively.

[ 428 U.S. Page 17]

     The retrospective aspects of legislation, as well as the prospective aspects, must meet the test of due process, and the justifications for the latter may not suffice for the former. Thus, in this case the justification for the retrospective imposition of liability must take into account the possibilities that the Operators may not have known of the danger of their employees' contracting pneumoconiosis, and that even if they did know of the danger their conduct may have been taken in reliance upon the current state of the law, which imposed no liability on them for disabling pneumoconiosis.*fn16 While the Operators have clearly been aware of the danger of pneumoconiosis for at least 20 years,*fn17 and while they have not specifically pressed the contention that they would have taken steps to reduce or eliminate the incidence of pneumoconiosis had the law imposed liability upon them, we would nevertheless hesitate to approve the retrospective imposition of liability on any theory of deterrence, cf. United States v. Peltier, 422 U.S. 531, 542

[ 428 U.S. Page 18]

     (1975), or blameworthiness, cf. ibid.; De Veau v. Braisted, 363 U.S. 144, 160 (1960).

We find, however, that the imposition of liability for the effects of disabilities bred in the past is justified as a rational measure to spread the costs of the employees' disabilities to those who have profited from the fruits of their labor - the operators and the coal consumers. The Operators do not challenge Congress' power to impose the burden of past mine working conditions on the industry. They do claim, however, that the Act spreads costs in an arbitrary and irrational manner by basing liability upon past employment relationships, rather than taxing all coal mine operators presently in business. The Operators note that a coal mine operator whose work force has declined may be faced with a total liability that is disproportionate to the number of miners currently employed. And they argue that the liability scheme gives an unfair competitive advantage to new entrants into the industry, who are not saddled with the burden of compensation for inactive miners' disabilities. In essence the Operators contend that competitive forces will prevent them from effectively passing on to the consumer the costs of compensation for inactive miners' disabilities, and will unfairly leave the burden on the early operators alone.

Of course, as we have already indicated, a substantial portion of the burden for disabilities stemming from the period prior to enactment is borne by the Federal Government. But even taking the Operators' argument at face value, it is for Congress to choose between imposing the burden of inactive miners' disabilities on all operators, including new entrants and farsighted early operators who might have taken steps to minimize black lung dangers, or to impose that liability solely on those early operators whose profits may have been increased at the expense of their employees' health. We are unwilling to assess the

[ 428 U.S. Page 19]

     wisdom of Congress' chosen scheme by examining the degree to which the "cost-savings" enjoyed by operators in the pre-enactment period produced "excess" profits, or the degree to which the retrospective liability imposed on the early operators can now be passed on to the consumer. It is enough to say that the Act approaches the problem of cost spreading rationally; whether a broader cost-spreading scheme would have been wiser or more practical under the circumstances is not a question of constitutional dimension. See, e.g., Ferguson v. Skrupa, 372 U.S., at 730-732; Williamson v. Lee Optical Co., 348 U.S., at 488.

The Operators ultimately rest their due process argument on Railroad Retirement Board v. Alton R. Co., 295 U.S. 330 (1935), in which the Court found the Railroad Retirement Act of 1934 to be unconstitutional. Among the provisions specifically invalidated as arbitrary was a provision for employer-financed pensions for former employees who, though not in the employ of the railroads at the time of enactment, had been so employed within the year. Assuming that the portion of Alton invalidating this provision retains vitality,*fn18 we find it distinguishable from this case. The point of the black lung benefit provisions is not simply to increase or supplement a former employee's salary to meet his generalized need for funds. Rather, the purpose of the Act is to satisfy a specific need created by the dangerous conditions under which the former employee labored - to allocate to the mine operator an actual, measurable cost of his business.

In sum, the Due Process Clause poses no bar to requiring an operator to provide compensation for a

[ 428 U.S. Page 20]

     former employee's death or disability due to pneumoconiosis arising out of employment in its mines, even if the former employee terminated his ...


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