Coal companies owned and operated by Gov. Jim Justice’s family are inching toward resolving unpaid medical benefits for retirees following a federal lawsuit filed by the United Mine Workers of America and four retired miners.
The union, the miners and Justice Energy Co. Inc., Keystone Service Industries, Bluestone Coal Corporation, Double-Bonus Coal Company and Southern Coal Corporation have been working on outstanding claims since reaching an agreement filed in January 2020 to resolve a preliminary injunction motion in the case.
In a joint filing Friday with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, the two sides noted an issue with a single outstanding bill that they believe will be resolved shortly and reported having conversations about other remaining, unspecified issues in the case beyond unpaid medical bills
In their previous joint status report in December, both sides reported “a very small number” of individual plaintiffs were still seeking confirmation from their health care providers and collection agencies that they’d received payment.
The union and retired miners James E. Graham II of Monroe County; Dennis Adkins of Jacksonville, N.C.; Roger Wriston of Fayette County; and David Polk of Wyoming County asked the court in their 2019 lawsuit to stop the Justice companies from terminating employer benefit plans for retired coal miners, their spouses and dependents, saying the refusal to pay for medical and prescription benefits caused them to miss out on critical health treatments. They also asked the court to make the companies reimburse the retirees named in the lawsuit and others that incurred health care expenses they alleged the company should have paid.
The lawsuit alleged Graham underwent back surgery in 2018 that the companies did not cover, causing him to delay post-surgery follow-up treatment. The suit also charged that Adkins was forced to pay for his and his wife’s medical treatment out of pocket for covered prescription drugs and treatment because his bills had not been paid, that Wriston’s wife did not get needed back injections because they had no confidence the insurance would cover them and that Polk had to cancel doctor’s appointments despite an abnormal heartbeat and high cholesterol due to lack of coverage.
The Justice companies failed to pay undisputed claims for medical services and prescription drug costs in a timely manner starting in at least late 2017 after entering into a collective bargaining agreement with the union at the end of 2016 effective through 2021. In that deal, the companies agreed to provide medical and prescription benefits to retirees and their spouses and dependents, according to the lawsuit.
The Justice companies argued that the plaintiffs didn’t properly follow claims review processes for their health plans per the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, a law the union and miners alleged the companies violated.
Justice Energy Co. Inc., Keystone Service Industries, Bluestone Coal Corporation and Double-Bonus Coal Company canceled retiree health coverage July 1, 2019, and restored partial coverage the next day, according to the lawsuit.
“Defendants’ failure to ensure adequate medical and prescription drug coverage has sown confusion and anxiety among this aged and vulnerable population,” the plaintiffs wrote in their lawsuit.
In their first joint status report in April 2020, the two sides reported fewer than 20 unpaid medical bill claims remaining unresolved or partially resolved and that many of the remaining claims for unpaid medical bills would be resolved in the next several weeks.
Eight status reports and more than nine months later, the claim resolution process continues. The parties agreed to submit another status report by March 5 and will notify the court if they reach a final settlement agreement before then.
Attorneys for the two sides could not be reached for comment.
This isn’t the first time the Justice coal companies have faced legal trouble related to the health and safety of their employees.
Nearly two dozen of the family’s companies agreed to pay roughly $5 million to settle a federal lawsuit claiming they failed to pay mine safety mines.
Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors found 2,297 violations at Justice and family-owned mines in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia over a five-year period ending in May 2019, according to the initial complaint in a 2019 lawsuit filed by the feds seeking $4.7 million.
Justice said he would put his children in charge of his family’s business operations upon becoming governor in 2017. The West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office lists Justice’s son James C. Justice III and daughter Jillean L. Justice as the directors of all four companies in the UMWA’s and miners’ lawsuit and the former as president of all four.