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Vialpando v. Chevron Mining, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 16, 2018

FILBERT C. VIALPANDO, Plaintiff,
v.
CHEVRON MINING, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Bobby R. Baldock United States Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff Filbert C. Vialpando, a retired coal miner, filed a motion for summary judgment (Doc. 11) against his former employer, Defendant Chevron Mining, Inc., to recover twenty percent additional compensation and interest under the Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA) 30 U.S.C. §§ 901-944 for untimely payment of benefits. Vialpando asserts he is entitled to twenty percent additional compensation plus interest from Chevron for late monthly benefit payments from February 2011 to December 2017. In response, Chevron filed a motion for summary judgment (Doc. 15) against Vialpando arguing it timely made the benefit payments. The cross-motions for summary judgment ask this Court to decide whether Chevron is obligated to pay Vialpando a twenty percent penalty and interest on any or all the benefits awarded under the BLBA. For the following reasons, the Court grants-in-part and denies-in-part Vialpando's motion and grants-in-part and denies-in-part Chevron's motion.

         I. Case History

         Plaintiff Filbert Vialpando worked for Chevron Mining, Inc. at the York Canyon coal mine in New Mexico. After nearly 29 years working as a coal miner, Vialpando contracted pneumoconiosis, a disease commonly known as “black lung.” In February 2011, Vialpando filed a claim for benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA) with the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Workers' Compensation Programs. OWCP administers the Labor Secretary's programs under the BLBA. A year later, the OWCP Director issued a Proposed Decision and Order awarding Vialpando black lung benefits dating back to February 2011. The Proposed Decision and Order awarded Vialpando $12, 197.90 in back payments and ordered Chevron to continue to pay benefits to Vialpando at the rate of $938.30 per month. The Proposed Decision and Order also warned Chevron that it would be liable for additional compensation and interest if Chevron failed to timely pay the benefits.[1]

         Chevron declined to pay benefits and timely sought a formal hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) contesting the benefits award set forth in the OWCP Director's Proposed Decision and Order. Shortly after Chevron requested a formal hearing, the OWCP Director sent Chevron an Initial Determination, which acknowledged Chevron's timely request for a formal hearing, calculated the benefits owed to Vialpando, and instructed Chevron to begin payments to Vialpando. As in the OWCP Director's Proposed Decision and Order, the Initial Determination warned Chevron that it would have to pay additional compensation and interest if it failed to begin payment ordered by the OWCP Director's Proposed Decision and Order.[2] On the same day the OWCP Director sent the Initial Determination to Chevron, the OWCP Director also sent a letter to Vialpando informing him the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund would prospectively pay Vialpando his benefits from the date of the Initial Determination “until [Vialpando's] claim is finally decided” because Chevron “declined to make payment to [Vialpando] until the issue is finally resolved.” Doc. 11-4 at 1. The Trust Fund paid Vialpando interim monthly benefits from February 2012 until November 2017 when Chevron refused to pay.[3]

         In September 2014, at a hearing before an ALJ, both Vialpando and Chevron presented evidence and arguments. Two years later, in its June 2016 Decision and Order Awarding Benefits, the ALJ found Vialpando qualified as totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis, awarded Vialpando benefits under the BLBA, and ordered Chevron to commence payment to Vialpando dating back to February 2011. On June 20, 2016, the OWCP Director received the ALJ's Decision and Order Awarding Benefits. Chevron then timely appealed the ALJ's decision to the U.S. Department of Labor's Benefits Review Board (BRB). In July 2017, the BRB affirmed the ALJ's Decision and Order Awarding Benefits.

         On December 27, 2017, the OWCP Director issued a final calculation of benefits, which stipulated Chevron pay the following: (1) $976.40 per month in monthly benefits under the BLBA beginning December 2017 to Vialpando, (2) $11, 259.60 for unpaid, past-due monthly benefits from February 2011 to January 2012 to Vialpando, (3) $66, 781 reimbursement to the Trust Fund for interim benefit payments made by the Trust Fund to Vialpando from February 2012 to November 2017, and (4) $958.26 to the Department of Labor for medical and travel expenses it incurred regarding Vialpando's claim. Thereafter, Chevron paid Vialpando and the Trust Fund within thirty days of the December 27, 2017 letter and began making monthly payments to Vialpando.

         Vialpando brings this action to enforce payment of additional compensation and interest arising from Chevron's alleged late payment of monthly benefits awarded under the BLBA from February 2011 to December 2017.

         II. Standard of Law

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the burden to show the absence of a genuine issue concerning any material fact. Celetox Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “Where, as here, we are presented with cross-motions for summary judgment, we must view each motion separately, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.” Boyz Sanitation Serv., Inc. v. City of Rawlins, 889 F.3d 1189, 1195 (10th Cir. 2018) (quoting Manganella v. Evanston Ins. Co., 702 F.3d 68, 72 (1st Cir. 2012)).

         III. Analysis

         The Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA) seeks “to provide benefits . . . to coal miners who are totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis.” 30 U.S.C. § 901. Operators who employ coal miners covered by the BLBA are required to compensate disabled miners for medical problems and disabilities related to pneumoconiosis. The BLBA incorporates significant portions of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA), including the disputed provision, 33 U.S.C. § 914(f), which provides a twenty percent penalty for failure to timely pay compensation:

If any compensation, payable under the terms of an award, is not paid within ten days after it becomes due, there shall be added to such unpaid compensation an amount equal to 20 per centum thereof, which shall be paid at the same time as, but in addition to, such compensation, unless review of the compensation order making such award is had as provided in section 921 of this title and an order staying payment has been issued by the Board or court.

33 U.S.C. § 914(f), incorporated by reference into the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. §§ 932(a), (d). Section 914(f) is designed to “ensure that individual coal operators rather than the [Black Lung Disability Trust Fund] bear the liability for claims arising out of such operators' mines to the maximum extent feasible.” Old Ben Coal Co. ...


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