5-8-12; Appellate Court, Workers’ Compensation Division, upholds an award for black lung disease, despite the fact the U.S. Department of Labor previously concluded Petitioner failed to prove...

Section 1(f) of the Act provides a claimant cannot recover benefits for occupational exposure unless he or she can prove the condition was contracted within two years of the last day of being exposed to a condition that could bring about the disease.

In Edmonds v. Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, 2012 IL App (5th) 110118WC (issued April 30, 2012) Franklin Co., a retired 30-year coal miner filed a claim under the Workers' Occupational Diseases Act, alleging shortness of breath and exercise intolerance as a result of inhaling coal mine dust. The Arbitrator awarded claimant 10% PPD to the person as a whole.

On review, the Commission affirmed the decision of the Arbitrator, but the Circuit Court of Franklin County overturned the Commission, holding the doctrine of collateral estoppel precluded any finding that claimant had CWP within two years after his last date of exposure because the United States Department of Labor found to the contrary in a proceeding for benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act.

Collateral estoppel, or “issue preclusion,” is a common law doctrine that prevents a party from re-litigating an issue. In other words, once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision precludes re-litigation of the issue in a suit on a different cause of action involving a party to the first case. The rationale behind issue preclusion is the prevention of legal harassment and the prevention of abuse of judicial resources.

In order for a party to assert its opponent is precluded from raising an issue previously decided, the following three factors must apply:

•           The issue decided in the prior adjudication must be identical to the issue in the current action;

•           The party against whom estoppel is asserted must have been a party or in privity with a party in the prior action; and

•           The prior adjudication must have resulted in a final judgment on the merits.

The Appellate Court of Illinois, Workers’ Compensation Division, overturned the Circuit Court’s ruling collateral estoppel was applicable in the case. The Court noted although the three requirements listed above were seemingly met, the United States Department of Labor’s ruling claimant failed to prove contracting the ailment within two years of the last day after he was exposed was not “a final judgment on the merits.”

In reaching its conclusion, the Court reasoned the Department of Labor's role was “investigative” in nature, rather than adjudicatory. The Court cited the informal nature of the federal proceeding, constraints on the nature of evidence for initial submission of the claim and Petitioner's supposed lack of incentive to fully and fairly litigate his claim before the District Director of the Department of Labor.

With respect to the members of the Court, we disagree and assert the Illinois WC Commission’s role can be characterized as “investigative”, “informal” and with constraints on evidence. To the extent claimant brought his claim to the U.S. DOL, we have no idea what the majority means about a lack of incentive.

This article was researched and written by Joseph D’Amato, J.D. For thoughts and comments, please send an email to jdamato@keefe-law.com.