Island Creek Coal Co. v. Bryan, No. 18-3909 (6th Cir. 2019)Annotate this Case
The Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. 901–44, provides federal funds to individuals totally disabled by a respiratory disease commonly caused by coal mine employment. The Secretary of Labor has broad implementation authority. When a miner applies for benefits, a Labor Department “district director” investigates and issues a proposed order, from which a party may request a hearing before an administrative law judge. The ALJ holds a hearing and issues a decision. A party may appeal a “substantial question of law or fact” to the Benefits Review Board. After exhausting these steps, a party may obtain judicial review of the Board's final order.
Labor Department staff (not the Secretary) had been appointing the ALJs. The Constitution’s Appointments Clause dictates that Congress may place the appointment power for “inferior Officers” only in the President, the courts, or the “Heads of Departments.” In 2017, anticipating that the Supreme Court might address the issue, the Secretary ratified the appointments of existing ALJs. Months later, the Court held (Lucia) that an SEC ALJ was an inferior officer who had been unconstitutionally appointed.
A former miner and an operator unsuccessfully moved for reconsideration of adverse decisions, arguing for the first time that the Secretary had not appointed their ALJs. The Board found the arguments “waived.” The Sixth Circuit agreed. The Act requires exhaustion. Parties are normally prohibited from raising new issues at the rehearing stage. The Board had the authority to address this constitutional issue and provide effective relief; there were many cases in which it did so for parties who preserved their claims. No exception applies; the parties did not demonstrate exceptional circumstances.