The trustees of a miner union’s retiree benefit plan have sued three of Gov. Jim Justice’s coal companies in federal court over what they say was a failure to pay monthly premiums for four years.
Four trustees of a United Mine Workers of America benefit plan filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia on Aug. 18 alleging that Bluestone Coal Corp., Bluestone Industries, Inc. and Keystone Service Industries, Inc. failed to pay required monthly per beneficiary premiums for the plan.
The trustees say that the companies’ alleged failure to pay premiums totaling $78,954 from July 15, 2017 through Aug. 15, 2021 caused the plan to not only lose income but incur administrative and legal expenses, constituting a violation of federal law — the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 — setting minimum standards for most voluntarily established retirement and health plans.
The benefit plan to which the trustees say the Justice companies have caused “continuing and irreparable injury” is the 1992 Benefit Plan, so named because it was established under the Coal Industry Retiree Health Benefit Act of 1992, also known as the Coal Act.
Individuals must have retired from the coal industry on or before Sept. 30, 1994 to receive benefits under the plan, according to the website for UMWA Health and Retirement Funds, a group of multi-employer plans that provide health and pension benefits to retired coal miners and their eligible dependents.
UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said the lawsuit has nothing to do with the Justice companies’ pension obligations or contractual obligations to provide benefits to its employees and retirees not covered by the Coal Act.
Smith deferred further comment to UMWA Health and Retirement Funds, whose offices and general counsel did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
The lawsuit lists Michael H. Holland, Michael O. McKown, Paul Piccolini and Carlo Tarley as the four trustees of the plan.
Bluestone Coal Corp., Bluestone Industries, Inc. and Keystone Service Industries, Inc. could not be reached for comment.
The Governor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Justice’s coal companies have been under legal fire from the UMWA over failure to provide other health benefits in recent months.
The UMWA and four retired miners alleged in a federal lawsuit filed in 2019 that Justice coal companies — including Bluestone Coal Corp. and Keystone Service Industries — repeatedly failed to provide them prescription drug coverage after agreeing to do so in a collective bargaining agreement with the UMWA at the end of 2016.
In a June filing, the union and retired miners alleged the companies had allowed a lapse in drug coverage for the 10th time in less than nine months, forcing retirees to pay out of pocket for drugs, go without medical treatment and refrain from filling prescriptions because of inability to pay.
In the most recent filing in that lawsuit, the union and retired miners in July withdrew a pending effort to force the coal companies to comply with a June judgment issued in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia ordering the companies not to end retiree health care and prescription drug coverage in violation of the collective bargaining agreement.
The retired miners and union said they had conferred with the companies regarding the provision of uninterrupted prescription drug coverage in that most recent filing, reserving the right to renew their motion if the companies failed to comply with the June order.
Upon taking office in 2017, Justice said he would put his children in charge of his family’s business operations. The Secretary of State’s Office lists Justice’s son James C. “Jay” Justice III and daughter Jillean L. Justice as directors of Bluestone Coal Corp., Keystone Service Industries and other family companies.
The Justice family’s financial troubles have spilled over into court repeatedly in recent months.
Justice and his wife, Cathy, and their son and three family companies sued Greensill Capital Limited in federal court in New York in March, alleging the global lender committed fraud in a long-term financing arrangement that included Bluestone paying $108 million in fees and another $100 million in warrants to purchase stakes in the coal company.
The governor acknowledged last month that he personally guaranteed loans from Greensill that The Wall Street Journal reported total nearly $700 million.
Justice, his wife and son and 11 family businesses, including The Greenbrier Hotel Corp. and Greenbrier-related sports and recreation entities, also are seeking at least $421 million in damages from Carter Bank & Trust, which they allege in a federal lawsuit induced them into loan defaults.