The Vindication of Mrs. Katterjohn

U.S. Steel v. Terry
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Mrs. Katterjohn, my eighth-grade English teacher back in the 1950s, was a fierce proponent of the art of diagramming sentences—a practice that I fear has gone the way of the slide rule.

Diagramming, you may recall, is the representation of the grammatical structure of a sentence by means of a diagram showing the roles and relationships of the words and phrases in a sentence. Proponents believe (usually devoutly) that diagramming enhances one’s understanding of the diagrammed sentence and, for the writer, assists in avoiding grammatical errors, ambiguity, and lack of clarity.

If you scoff at sentence diagramming, you should look at the Eleventh Circuit opinion pitting coal miner Luther Terry’s widow, Cassandra, against U.S. Steel Mining Co. In this widow-versus-Goliath case with millions of dollars at stake, the outcome depended on whether a prepositional phrase modified a past participle or an adjective.

In this widow-versus-Goliath case with millions of dollars at stake, the outcome depended on whether a prepositional phrase modified a past participle or an adjective.

The Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. § 932(l), provides automatic survivor benefits to the widow of a disabled coal miner “who was determined to be eligible to receive benefits … at the time of his … death.”

So, as Mrs. Katterjohn might demand of the student quivering at the blackboard, how would you diagram that sentence? Does the phrase “at the time of his death” modify the past participle determined or the adjective eligible?

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Why does it matter? It matters because Luther was eligible at the time of his death, but his eligibility was not determined until after his death. Because Luther was not determined to be eligible at the time of his death, the mining company lawyer argued (no doubt with a Snidely Whiplash sneer), the widow gets no benefits.

“No,” countered Cassandra’s lawyer (perhaps with a Jimmy Stewart catch in his voice), “at the time of his death” modifies “eligible,” not “determined.” Regardless of when his eligibility was determined, Luther was eligible at the time of his death, so Cassandra gets her widow’s benefits.

The Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of Cassandra and against the mining company, citing two reasons. One was the practical consideration that the mining company position would lead to ridiculous results, as in this hypothetical: Two miners apply for benefits. On the same day—a Tuesday—the Administrative Law Judge finds both miners eligible. One miner had died the previous day, Monday; the other dies the next day, Wednesday. Under the Snidely Whiplash argument, the first widow would lose, but the second would win. That can’t be right.

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The second reason could have come straight from Mrs. Katterjohn’s mouth: The phrase “at the time of his death” closely follows the phrase “eligible to receive benefits,” thus indicating that it modifies that phrase. If the phrase “at the time of his death” had been meant to modify the word “determined,” it would come after that word, as in “determined at the time of his death.” But it doesn’t. Q.E.D.

Somewhere up above, Mrs. Katterjohn is smiling.

The case is U.S. Steel Mining v. Terry, 11th Cir.

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