Judge Stephanie Davis, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 ruling that upheld an award under the Black Lung Benefits Act that went to the widow of a deceased coal miner. The majority rejected the coal company’s claim that substantial evidence did not support the award. The February 2023 decision was in Little T Coal Co. v Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs.
What’s the Background of the Case?
Andy Bailey worked as a miner for several companies, including the Little T Coal Company. He also smoked. He suffered from serious medical impairments, including significant lung problems requiring him to take oxygen continually, four heart attacks, and peripheral vascular disease. He filed an administrative claim for federal black lung benefits, which was granted. Little T asked for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Bailey could not attend the hearing, but it resulted in a finding that he in fact suffered from black lung disease and should receive disability benefits. The Labor Department affirmed the ruling, and Bailey’s widow, Mary Bailey, was to receive the benefits.
The coal company sought review of the ruling from the Sixth Circuit. It claimed that “substantial evidence” did not support the ALJ decision because of the evidence that smoking helped cause Bailey’s lung problems and because the ALJ neglected the fact that the primary expert who supported Bailey’s claims had improperly interpreted x-ray evidence.
How did the majority rule and why is it important how Judge Davis voted?
In a 2-1 opinion by Judge Jane Stranch (an Obama nominee), the majority rejected the coal company’s arguments and upheld the award of black lung benefits to Mrs. Bailey. Judge Davis cast the deciding vote and agreed with Judge Stranch. The majority rejected the view of the coal company and the dissent that the ALJ had improperly credited an expert opinion that relied on faulty x-ray evidence. Instead, they explained, the x-ray was only a “partial” factor, and the expert and the ALJ had properly relied on “substantial evidence,” including a “physical examination, clinical testing, CT scan,” and Bailey’s medical and “coal mine employment history,” including his smoking.
The outcome not only benefited Mary Bailey, but also helped clarify the need to defer to administrative agencies that make factual findings in disability and other cases. As even the dissent conceded, courts should review ALJ factual findings “deferentially” and uphold them when “supported by substantial evidence” and the law. Departing from that standard, as some far-right judges have attempted to do, will harm countless people who depend on administrative agencies to help them get justice. The decision provides another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judicial nominees by President Biden like Judge Davis, who is the second African-American woman ever confirmed for the Sixth Circuit.