RICHMOND, Va.–The 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that Elk Run Coal Company, represented by the Jackson Kelly law firm, did not commit fraud in a black lung case that drew national attention.
Lawyers for Mary Fox, widow of coal miner Gary Fox, argued that Jackson Kelly lawyers withheld medical evidence that Mr. Fox had black lung. However, the court found that the law firm’s actions “while hardly admirable, did not… demonstrate the commission of fraud upon the court.”
The Fox case drew national publicity because of a year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity. It alleged in a story last fall that Jackson Kelly, West Virginia’s largest law firm, had a practice of withholding medical evidence that hurt the coal companies they represent in black lung cases.
Black lung is a disease caused by lengthy exposure to coal dust. Federal law requires coal companies to compensate miners and their families if they have been determined to have the disease. Companies and miners are allowed to appeal decisions made by the U.S. Labor Department, with each side presenting their own medical evidence.
The Center for Public Integrity and Fox’s lawyers argued that Jackson Kelly withheld pathologists’ reports that showed Fox had black lung, which led to Fox being denied his claim. The 4th Circuit found, however, that “While Elk Run’s conduct over the course of this litigation warrants nothing approaching judicial approbation, we are unable to say that it rose to the level of fraud on the court.”
Jackson Kelly issued a statement saying it was pleased with the decision.
“As the Court noted, under our legal system, parties on all sides of a dispute are entitled to effective representation. As the Court acknowledged, the federal black lung program is intended to be adversarial. We have always believed that the actions of our attorneys were lawful,” the statement read in part.
Fox’s attorney, Al Karlin, acknowledged the court’s decision, but added, “We note that the Court did not endorse the firm’s conduct, nor did it consider or resolve the more important question as to whether the firm committed common law fraud.”
Still, the decision represents an acquittal for one of the state’s leading law firms, which had come in for considerable criticism because of the case and the national news coverage it generated.
“We believe our conduct in this case was consistent with our duty to represent our client,” said Jackson Kelly.