Mullins Coal Co. of Va. v. Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs

484 U. S. 135

December 14, 1987

The federal government set up a program to help coal miners who suffered from black lung. Regulations created an elaborate system to figure out who qualified. If you worked in a coal mine for 10 years, and could bring forth one of four types of medical evidence that you had black lung, you would be presumed eligible, subject to rebuttal. The question was how strong the medical evidence had to be. The Secretary of Labor said that all available medical evidence had to support a black lung diagnosis to qualify for the presumption. Some suing miners claimed that a single X-Ray which appeared to show black lung would suffice.

By a 6-2 vote, the Court deferred to the Secretary’s interpretation. Justice Stevens admitted that the literal language of the regulation made it look like a single x-ray or study would be enough, but adduced evidence that this was a result of sloppy drafting. If discrete pieces of medical evidence in favor of black lung turned out to be mere anomalies or false positives, Stevens felt that this should be known during the presumption stage, and was unmoved by the argument that this made the rebuttal stage largely superfluous. In the end, the Secretary’s reading of the regulation seemed consistent with legislative history and the programs purpose.

Marshall dissented, and was joined by Brennan. The dissent focused strongly on the literal language, which plainly intimated that a single x-ray could be enough, and that all other relevant medical evidence was properly introduced during rebuttal. Because black lung was a notoriously hard disease to diagnose, it made sense to allow a presumption to be established more easily. I have to say, the literal language argument is quite strong, and I would be sorely tempted to sign on to it. If the regulation really wasn’t mean to mean what its words say, a better worded regulation should have been promulgated.

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