W&L Black Lung Clinic Wins Latest 4th Circuit Argument

Lexington, VA Tuesday, August 19, 2008


John Appelbaum '08 prepares for his 4th Circuit argument last spring.
Washington and Lee University School of Law students have again prevailed in a Black Lung benefits dispute argued before the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. The opinion, authored by Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson, affirmed an administrative law judge's award of black lung benefits to Charles Amick, now deceased.

The case was argued before the Court last May by John Appelbaum '08, just days after his graduation from law school. 2007 graduate T.J. Maas, along with clinical professors Mary Natkin and Renae Patrick, drafted the case brief submitted before oral argument. This was the second case presented before the 4th Circut last year by a student in the Black Lung Clinic. The other case, argued by Raya Jarawan '08, was remanded back to the administrative law judge (ALJ) for further review.

The Amick case, Westmoreland v. Amick, was itself making a return trip to the Court after being remanded in 2004. At issue was whether the administrative law judge who supported the black lung benefits review board decision to award benefits to Mr. Amick properly weighted expert medical testimony from both parties. After remand, the administrative law judge further explained his rationale for weighting the testimony as he did, and Appelbaum successfully argued those facts to the Court.

Charles M. Amick worked as a coal miner for thirty-three years, performing all manner of jobs in support of mine operations until he retired in 1983. Amick filed two claims for black lung benefits in the 1980's, both of which were denied, before having benefits awarded in March of 2000. The Westmoreland Mine Company appealed the award to the ALJ, and the award was affirmed, on the grounds that Mr. Amick had proven the existence of total disability due to pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease.

Mr. Amick died in May 2006, after the first 4th Circuit opinion. The awarded benefits, which accrued from the date Mr. Amick became totally disabled to the date of his death, will be paid to his estate. Melba Amick, his wife, has filed a separate claim for survivor's benefits, which the clinic is currently handling.

Law students working in the Black Lung Legal Clinic often have the opportunity to argue cases before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court heard arguments in two clinic cases last year, and three case briefs are due this fall to the Court for potential argument in the spring.

Washington and Lee University School of Law's Black Lung Clinic assists coal miners and their survivors who are pursuing federal black lung benefits. In trying to collect benefits, miners face formidable teams of lawyers, paralegals and doctors that coal companies assemble to challenge those claims.

Even against those odds, W&L's clinic has a success rate roughly five times the national average in cases in which its students appear. Under the supervision of clinical law faculty, upper level law students evaluate claims, develop evidence, conduct discovery, depositions, and hearings, and write motions, arguments, and appeal briefs.  While the clinic is unable to accept every request for representation, it has represented over 200 clients since its inception in 1996.

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