W&L Black Lung Clinic Wins Two 4th Circuit Cases

Lexington, VA • Monday, June 01, 2009

Washington and Lee University School of Law students have again prevailed in two Black Lung benefits disputes argued this year before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Most recently, the Court ruled in favor of awarding Black Lung benefits to Dewey L. Compton, who worked in coal mining for 32 years. Compton originally filed for benefits in 1998 but was denied benefits for not proving he suffered total disability from pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease.

New evidence led to a subsequent benefits request, and this time, both the administrative law judge and Benefits Review Board supported Compton’s claim. The Williams Mountain Coal Company appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit, requesting oral argument.

Dan Ennis ‘09L wrote the brief on Compton’s behalf and argued the case before the Court. Lawyers from the coal company were joined at oral argument by those from the Department of Labor in opposing the benefits award.

“Mr. Ennis did an outstanding job at oral argument, performing as well as any advocate arguing before the Fourth Circuit that morning, and better than several,” said Prof. Tim McDonnell, director of the Black Lung Clinic.

In the other case, Island Creek Coal Company v. Darrel B. Dewitt, the Court determined that Dewitt’s chronic pulmonary disease was caused by a combination of smoking and coal dust exposure during a 26 year stint working in the coal mines. Representatives of the coal company had maintained that Dewitt’s pulmonary disease was caused solely by smoking.

Black Lung student Ketan Patel ’09 wrote the brief on behalf of Mr. Dewitt.  The Fourth Circuit determined that oral argument was not necessary and ruled in Mr. Dewitt’s favor, supporting earlier decisions by the administrative law judge and the Benefits Review Board. 

Neither coal company has appealed the Fourth Circuit’s decisions at this time.

The Black Lung Legal 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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