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MSHA’s Imminent Danger Authority is Unreviewable, Administrative Law Judge Says

MSHA may issue an imminent danger order either to a production operator, an independent contractor, or both, and its decision is unreviewable by the court.

Administrative Law Judge Thomas McCarthy drew that conclusion in a case involving Cloverlick Coal Co., LLCwhich had contested an imminent danger order a federal inspector had issued at its Mine No. 1 in Kentucky in February 2012. Someone had complained to MSHA that water and rocks from a steep embankment were falling into a large hole a contractor had dug at the base of the hill to build a foundation for a retaining wall and a support structure. The imminent danger order was issued under Section 107(a) of the Mine Act.

Cloverlick argued MSHA had abused its discretion by directing the order against Cloverlick rather than against its contractor, Cumberland Mine Service, Inc. Cloverlick said it had done nothing wrong and contended the allegedly hazardous condition at the work site was solely within Cumberland’s control. However, citing court precedent, McCarthy said it would be “anathema to the [Mine] Act’s enforcement scheme” for Cloverlick to contract away its duties.

The operator also contended the order should be vacated because MSHA did not follow its own enforcement guidelines when it issued the order to Cloverlick and not to Cumberland. But the judge said courts “have universally held that the enforcement guidelines are merely a general statement of policy that do not curtail the Secretary’s discretion.”

The enforcement guidelines appear in MSHA’s Program Policy Manual and have been published in the Federal Register. They outline general guidance about when a production operator, an independent contractor, or both might be cited, and state that “inspectors should cite independent contractors for violations committed by the contractor.” However, McCarthy said the guidelines “lack the certainty to bind the Secretary’s discretion” in deciding who to cite.

The judge said MSHA was still obligated to explain why it deviated from established policy. Nonetheless, in his August 5 decision he stated that there was insufficient evidence in the case to determine the extent to which the agency had relied upon its guidelines.

“Accordingly, under extant [Federal Mine Safety and Health Review] Commission and U.S. Circuit Court precedent I am constrained to find that the authority of the Secretary to issue an imminent danger order to a particular party is unreviewable,” McCarthy said.

The agency cited both Cloverlick and Cumberland for allegedly failing to provide and maintain safe access to the working place. McCarthy threw out the citation against Cloverlick. He identified the “working place” as the hole, saying no evidence had been provided that access to it was unsafe. In a separate proceeding, Cumberland settled its citation after agreeing to a $2,400 fine. 

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2020National Law Review, Volume IV, Number 226


About this Author

Bradford T. Hammock, Jackson Lewis, workplace safety law attorney, Hazardous Conditions Lawyer

Bradford T. Hammock is a Principal in the Washington, D.C. Region office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He focuses his practice in the safety and health area, and is co-leader of the firm’s Workplace Safety and Health Practice Group.

Mr. Hammock’s national practice focuses on all aspects of occupational safety and health law. In particular, Mr. Hammock provides invaluable assistance to employers in a preventive practice: (1) conducting full-scale safety and health compliance audits; (2) reviewing and revising corporate safety and...

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Henry Chajet, Jackson Lewis, health safety attorney, dispute resolution lawyer, overcharge recoveries legal counsel
Of Counsel

Henry Chajet is Of Counsel in the Washington, D.C. Region office of Jackson Lewis P.C.

Mr. Chajet counsels and represents clients in environmental, health and safety (EH&S) matters and antitrust matters, focusing on crisis management, dispute resolution, trial and appellate litigation, standard setting, liability prevention, regulatory and congressional proceedings and “direct purchaser” overcharge recoveries for corporate clients in antitrust price manipulation cases. He defends investigations and enforcement actions by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation (DOT), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and other federal and state agencies, as well as in related tort claims and criminal cases, and in EH&S whistleblower or discrimination claims.

To achieve an integrated defense strategy at the initiation of a government investigation or enforcement action, Mr. Chajet coordinates forensic accounting and technical experts, insurance issues, government interviews, document production and public relations experts. He has extensive experience representing clients in cases involving fatal or serious injuries, explosions, chemical releases, fires, manufacturing, transportation and construction accidents, mine disasters and allegations of product toxicity or community harm. Mr. Chajet has served as co-lead counsel in successful, multimillion dollar recovery cases for corporate clients that were “direct purchasers” of commodities and products for which prices were artificially increased through monopoly price manipulation, violating antitrust law.