A Supreme Court ruling outweighs an unpublished opinion from an administrative law judge (ALJ).
Yes, that seems obvious, but we raise the point only because the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion this week in which it reversed a U.S. Department of Labor Benefits Review Board (BRB) decision that relied on an ALJ decision instead of binding Supreme Court precedent.
Robert Green appeared before an ALJ in 2008 to request disability benefits for hearing loss incurred through loud noise exposure at Ceres Marine Terminals (Ceres). Green was a dockworker, and stated that when the port crane unloaded containers from a cargo ship, it frequently slammed the containers onto the waiting truck chassis below, sometimes as often as 300-400 times in an eight-hour shift. Green claimed that he never wore hearing protection on the dock, but he would put cotton in his ears if the noise was particularly loud.
Green went to Joseph Gillespie, an audiologist, for a hearing check in 2007. Gillespie determined that Green suffered from a 45 db hearing loss in his left ear at 4,000 Hz frequency, and 3.75 percent binaural hearing loss. Gillespie recommended that Green use Widex Inteo in-the-ear hearing aids, at a cost of $6,500 per pair.
Later in 2007, Stuart Cohen, an audiologist retained by Ceres, examined Green and found a 0 percent binaural hearing impairment, but "mild to moderate, bilateral, sensorineural hearing loss" and recommended that Green use the Phonak UNA MAZ behind-the-ear hearing aid. The Phonak hearing aids cost $2,500 per pair.
Green filed a disability claim with Ceres, pursuant to the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA), for the Gillespie-recommended hearing aids. Ceres denied the claim.
The ALJ found that both hearing tests were both credible and entitled to "equal probative value" despite Supreme Court precedent in Director, OWCP v. Greenwich Collieries that Green had the burden of proof.
The ALJ averaged the results of the two audiograms and determined that Green was entitled to disability benefits for a 1.875 percent binaural hearing loss. The ALJ ordered Ceres to pay for all of Green's reasonable and necessary medical expenses arising from his hearing loss disability, and attorney's fees in the amount of $10,390.10. The BRB affirmed.
Ceres appealed on the grounds that the ALJ contravened Supreme Court precedent by failing to adhere to the burden of proof as established in Director, OWCP v. Greenwich Collieries.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Ceres, finding that BRB committed a clear error of law when it affirmed the ALJ's decision and order, relying on its own precedent rather than the controlling law set forth by the Supreme Court.
The court noted that Green failed to meet his burden of proof, and his claim for binaural hearing loss benefits should have been denied.
Worker's comp attorneys: If your ALJ is drifting towards an ego-driven benefits award in conflict with Greenwich Collieries, drop a gentle hint that Supreme Court precedent is binding, even on ALJs.