Senators, officials criticize law firm accused of scheme
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., criticized the alleged actions of a prominent West Virginia law firm Wednesday, a day after a national report accused Jackson Kelly of repeatedly hiding evidence in order to help its coal company clients in black lung benefits cases brought by coal miners.
"No legal firm, lawyer, doctor, or solicitor should be allowed to intentionally and illegally manipulate the court system in order to protect corporations from being held accountable for failing to support their workforce," Manchin said in a statement emailed by a spokeswoman.
A union official also blasted the law firm, saying the allegations are a long time coming.
"Those attorneys who participated in this scheme deserve to suffer all the penalties available, but no penalty that may be imposed upon them by the legal system can compare with the suffering they have inflicted on hard working miners who gave their health and years off their lives to their employers, only to be scammed out of the benefits they were owed," said Phil Smith, a United Mine Workers of America spokesman.
The comments come in response to a lengthy investigative report released earlier this week by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
Jackson Kelly, a law firm based in Charleston with offices in five other states and Washington, D.C., frequently represents coal companies. Coal is one of 14 different industries represented by the law firm, according to its website.
The center's report accuses its attorneys of withholding medical information that could have helped coal miners prove they had black lung.
A second story in the series accuses a prominent Johns Hopkins University doctor of almost always declaring miners don't have black lung. Other doctors from a variety of other health care entities say many of those cases do show black lung, according to the latest story.
Jackson Kelly declined comment.
In court documents filed in several different cases, attorneys for the firm have argued they have no legal obligation to turn over such documents and they want to prepare a case that gives their clients the best chance to win.
Manchin and Smith said that's not justification for the law firm's alleged actions.
"The reported allegations appear to show that hardworking miners and their families were denied the benefits and health care services they deserved to treat black lung and provide for their families," Manchin said in the statement.
"If these reports are true, and the individuals illegally withheld evidence at the expense of sick miners, they should be punished by the appropriate authorities to the fullest extent of the law."
Douglas Smoot, a Jackson Kelly attorney accused of hiding evidence in a black lung case, had his law license suspended in 2011 for one year. The state Supreme Court ruled he violated the state rules of professional conduct, calling his actions "deceitful" and "dishonest."
He is not listed in the attorneys directory on the Jackson Kelly website.
Jackson Kelly attorneys Bill Mattingly, Dorothea Clark and Kathy Snyder were also investigated by state Office of Disciplinary Counsel but were not sanctioned, according to the center's report. Mattingly and Snyder are listed in the firm's online directory.
Clark is not, but the West Virginia state bar website lists Jackson Kelly as her firm. The same site lists her status as "inactive."
Manchin and Smith joined Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, in commenting on the case.
Kessler, an attorney who clerked for the federal benefits review board that handles black lung cases, called the alleged actions "absolutely wrong." If proven true, he agreed there needs to be "serious repercussions" for the attorneys involved.
While Rockefeller did not specifically address the accusations against Jackson Kelly, he lamented the continuing struggle miners with legitimate cases of black lung can face when trying to receive benefits from coal companies.
Rockefeller has introduced a number of bills calling for a reduction in allowable levels of dust in mines and easing the administrative burden facing miners seeking claims. Manchin recently co-sponsored one of those bills: the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act. Introduced this spring, it's the latest attempt from the senators to try and pass the measure.
Smith said it's time for the government to take action on policies that could protect miners from black lung.
"We know what causes Black Lung and we know how to prevent it," Smith said in the statement.
"That people are still getting black lung means that either the respirable dust standards are too low or the companies aren't abiding by those standards, or both. The government needs to finalize pending respirable dust rules and then enforce them."
Rockefeller and Kessler were the only two officials to send comments to the Daily Mail before the press deadline Tuesday.
House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, responded through a spokeswoman late Tuesday night. He said his first priority is to protect the state's miners, but he didn't think it was appropriate to specifically comment on the allegations in the report until lawsuits associated with the accusations are resolved.
The widow of a West Virginia coal miner is suing Jackson Kelly for allegedly hiding documents that could have shown her husband had black lung and helped get him benefits. Although an administrative judge ruled against Jackson Kelly, the law firm appealed the case.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit heard oral arguments in the case Tuesday.
Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley, both R-W.Va., and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey declined comment. A spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin responded to a request for comment, but did not send any comment.
The final installment in the center's story is slated for online publication Friday. A link to the first two stories in the series is available at dailymail.com.