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Black Lung Clinic Files Amicus Brief in Supreme Court Health Care Case

Eight years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The issue will again come before the Court in a challenge from a number of states asking the Justices to review a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals from the 5th Circuit that struck down the mandate.

Students in the Black Lung Clinic, along with the Clinic’s director, Prof. Tim MacDonnell, have authored an amicus brief in the case. They are seeking to protect two provisions of the ACA that affect the ability of coal miners and surviving spouses to receive payments through the Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA).

One section provides that if a coal miner has a totally disabling lung disease and worked for more than 15 years in an underground coal mine or similar conditions, it is presumed the lung damage was caused by coal dust. It then becomes the burden of the coal company to prove otherwise. The other section applies to surviving spouses and provides that if a miner fights and wins a claim for benefits, those benefits pass on to the surviving spouse when the miner dies rather than requiring the spouse to re-litigate the claim.

Students in the Black Lung Clinic represents coal miners diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, in their pursuit of benefits from the Department of Labor. The Clinic has represented hundreds of clients since its creation in 1996. If the ACA is struck down in its entirety, the brief notes that hundreds coal miners and spouses nationwide, including many of the Clinic’s current and former clients, will lose benefits.

Amanda Triplett ‘20L is one of the clinic students who worked on the brief, along with Preston Glasscock ‘20L and Kat Porter ‘20L. Triplett explained that the legal question at issue in the Clinic’s brief is known as “severability.” The brief, beginning from the assumption that the individual mandate may be struck down, argues that the absence of the mandate should have no impact on the rest of the ACA. In other words, the individual mandate is severable from the rest of the Act.

But the brief also considers the possibility that the Court will hold that the individual mandate is too connected to the rest of the Act, and that the entire ACA must be struck down. In this case, the brief argues that the black lung amendments can still stand.

“We argued that because the Black Lung provisions are constitutionally valid, can function independently of the individual mandate, and are still consistent with Congress’ objectives in enacting the Affordable Care Act, they must be upheld,” said Tripplett. “This strong legal presumption in favor of severing the provisions is ultimately rooted in separation of powers doctrine.”

Glasscock noted that working on the brief was one of the highlights of his clinic experience.

“As Professor MacDonnell says, every time you flip on a light switch, you have coal miners to thank,” said Glasscock. “Today something like a third of American electricity comes from coal, courtesy of American coal miners. Many of the people we represent at the Black Lung Clinic actually mined coal when it was an even tougher job than it is now and when the percentage that coal contributed to the overall amount of American electricity was even higher than it is now. American progress and American greatness since our founding is due in large part to these people — who work in a dangerous job in the dark, deep underground, without public acclaim, and with a very high likelihood of developing lung disease.”

Triplett echoed this sentiment that the project was the perfect culmination of her law school education.

“This was an experience that helped prepared us for practice,” said Triplett. “We tracked and managed court deadlines, set our own internal deadlines, discussed strategy and other issues as they arose, and streamlined our work into one cohesive argument. In addition to this, the topic of this amicus brief is incredibly complex. It required performing very in-depth legislative history and statutory research, wading through a very difficult and highly contested legal topic, and breaking down all of this information into a cogent legal argument.”

“It was an honor to contribute to the Black Lung Legal Clinic’s advocacy to the United States Supreme Court,” she added.

Oral arguments in the case, Texas v. California, are set for this fall, with a decision expected in 2021.