The Supreme Court Tuesday saved the coal mining industry from paying potentially billions of dollars in additional benefits to miners with black lung disease.
But at the same time, the justices ruled that more than 8,000 miners with pending black lung claims may be eligible to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits.By a 5-4 vote, the court said that miners with less than 10 years of work in the mines are eligible to claim benefits if there is other evidence they are disabled. That class of workers is estimated by the government to be around 8,000 to 10,000 miners.
But the court also overturned a lower court ruling that could have opened the way for claims by possibly more than 100,000 miners seeking as much as $13.6 billion in benefits.
The larger group is barred from receiving benefits because miners in that class failed to pursue administrative remedies or to appeal to the courts within the prescribed time, the justices ruled.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said Congress never intended to exclude from benefit eligibility miners who worked less than 10 years.
"We do not sit to determine what Congress ought to have done given the evidence before it, but to apply what Congress enacted - and . . . the exclusion of short-term miners from the benefits . . . finds no support in the statute," Scalia said.
On the other hand, he continued, nothing in federal law requires the government to reopen settled claims.
"There is not even a colorable basis for the contention that Congress has imposed a duty to reconsider finally determined claims," he said.
He was joined by Justices William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun and Anthony M. Kennedy.
The four dissenters agreed that settled cases should not be reopened. But they also said that miners with less than 10 years of work are not entitled to the benefits.