Thursday, November 09, 2006

Fourth Circuit issues non-mutual offensive collateral estoppel opinion

In Collins v. Pond Creek Mining Co., the Fourth Circuit considered non-mutual offensive collateral estoppel in a case where a widow sought Black Lung survivor benefits. Mrs. Collins sought to rely on the 1988 ALJ Decision to establish that Mr. Collins developed pneumoconiosis as a result of his thirty-six years in the coal mines. The panel noted that the issue of whether Mr. Collins developed and suffered from pneumoconiosisas a result of his work in the mines was actually determined in the 1988 proceeding, the determination was critical and necessary to the 1988 ALJ Decision, absent a finding of pneumoconiosis Mr. Collins could not have been awarded black lung benefits under the Act in 1988, the 1988 ALJ Decision is was valid, and Pond Creek had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue.

The only issue was whether ruling was not entitled to preclusive effect under the doctrine of collateral estoppel because of a change in the law in Island Creek Coal Co. v. Compton, 211 F.3d 203 (4th Cir. 2000) and thus the issue of whether Mr. Collins had pneumoconiosis was not identical to the one previously litigated. In Compton, the Fourth Circuit invalidated the BRB's practice of allowing ALJs to find the existence of pneumoconiosis by looking exclusively at evidence within one of 20 C.F.R. 718.202(a)'s four subsections, while ignoring contrary evidence belonging to one of the other three subsections. The Fourth Circuit held that the preponderance of the evidence standard was used in 1988 and is still the standard today in establishing entitlement to Black Lung benefits. Thus, the Court's ruling in Compton did not prevent the use on non-mutual offensive collateral estoppel. The widow was entitled to benefits.

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