Class action suit seeks wages for Kentucky miners following coal company’s bankruptcy

A Blackjewel LLC mine in Harlan County sat idle on July 5, 2019, in the wake of the company’s bankruptcy.
A Blackjewel LLC mine in Harlan County sat idle on July 5, 2019, in the wake of the company’s bankruptcy.

A former employee of a major coal producer filed a class action suit Tuesday that aims to recover wages for employees of Blackjewel LLC., a coal company that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week and left hundreds of Kentucky miners out of work.

The suit claims that Blackjewel broke a federal labor law that requires companies to give workers 60 days notice before their jobs are terminated. It aims to force Blackjewel to pay 60 days wages and benefits for those employees.

Stuart Miller, an attorney representing the former employee, said the company’s failure to notify workers constitutes a violation of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.

WARN Act class action suits are “opt-out” suits, meaning former Blackjewel employees don’t have to sign up to join. Rather, any former Blackjewel employee who meets the requirements specified in the suit would receive benefits unless the employee chooses to opt out.

Blackjewel and its affiliates make up one of the largest coal producers in the nation, with about 1,100 miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, and another 600 miners in the western U.S.

Kentucky employees have reported that their last paychecks, issued June 28, were clawed back July 1, leaving many miners and their families with overdrawn accounts and serious financial struggles.

Miller said any money earned from the class action suit would be separate from those clawed-back or unpaid wages.

An attorney representing Blackjewel in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy suit could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

During a hearing this weekend, the company confirmed that it would not be able to pay many miners until it had enough money to re-open its mines and bring people back to work.

An attorney representing Blackjewel in the bankruptcy did not provide any specific timeline during the hearing.

“To be perfectly clear: the company is fully committed to securing the additional financing necessary to resume normal operations and to bring our employees back to work as quickly as possible,” Blackjewel said in a statement to its employees last week.

Miller’s firm, Lankenau & Miller, LLP., solely handles WARN Act class action suits. The firm has represented clients in more than 200 similar cases, some of which were against coal companies, Miller said.

“It’s a case we’re certainly willing to take on because we feel good about it,” he said.

If the suit is successful, the wages claim would go to the top of the list of unsecured creditors as other entities seek money from Blackjewel in the bankruptcy.

As of Tuesday evening, Blackjewel had yet to file a response to the suit.

Blackjewel’s bankruptcy and the claw-back of miners’ wages have provoked an investigation from the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, as well as criticisms from state and local officials.

Attorney General Andy Beshear has also dedicated resources from his office to assist miners who have been left out-of-work following the bankruptcy.

As of Tuesday evening, the class action case listed just one plaintiff, David Engelbrecht, a former Blackjewel employee from Wyoming, but Miller asked other miners who have been impacted by the bankruptcy to contact his office at (212) 581-5005.

“It’s very early in the case and facts need to be developed, and if there are people who want to call us, particularly from the other facilities, we’d be happy to talk to them,” Miller said. “I can guarantee people that it’s not going to cost them anything.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.