By Andrew H. Perellis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In another business-friendly move, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently updated its Justice Manual to clarify that it “should not treat a party’s noncompliance with a guidance document as itself a violation of applicable statutes or regulations [or to] establish a violation by reference to statutes and regulations.”

We had blogged in early 2018 regarding Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand’s memorandum “Limiting Use of Agency Guidance Documents In Affirmative Civil Enforcement Cases.” (Brand Memo), which indicated that the Department would no longer prosecute cases based solely on violations of various agencies’ “guidance documents”.  Now DOJ has taken it a step further by adding a section to its Justice Manual (Manual) titled: “Limitation on Use of Guidance Documents in Litigation..”  The new section was effective in December 2018.

Under the updated Manual, DOJ (which effectively acts as “outside counsel” to departments and agencies including the DOL, EPA, OSHA, ATF and DEA, among others, in cases exceeding certain penalty thresholds and other criteria) may no longer prosecute cases against alleged violators unless the violations are of properly promulgated (through “notice and comment” rulemaking) regulatory requirements, not agency guidance documents or policies.

The Brand Memo itself was a follow-up to an earlier memo issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on November 16, 2017 (Sessions Memo), which instituted a new policy that prohibits the Department of Justice from using its civil enforcement authority to convert agency guidance documents into binding rules. The Sessions Memo “prevent[ed] the Department of Justice from evading required rulemaking processes by using guidance memos to create de facto regulations. In the past, the Department of Justice and other agencies had blurred the distinction between regulations and guidance documents.”

Under the DOJ’s new policy, DOJ civil litigators are “prohibited from using guidance documents—or noncompliance with guidance documents—to establish violations of law in affirmative civil enforcement actions.”  The Brand Memo also indicates that “the [Sessions Memo]. . . prohibits the Department from using its guidance documents to coerce regulated parties into taking any action or refraining from taking any action beyond what is required by the terms of the applicable statute or lawful regulation.”  Finally, the Brand Memo confirms that the DOJ “…should not treat a party’s noncompliance with an agency guidance document as presumptively or conclusively establishing that the party violated the applicable statute or regulation.”

While the Brand Memo applied only to affirmative civil enforcement actions brought by the DOJ, we see the updated Manual, Sessions Memo and the Brand Memo as welcome relief from arbitrary use of guidance by departments and agencies such as the DOL, OSHA, or EPA in enforcement proceedings of regulated industry.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth OSHA Compliance, Enforcement & Litigation Team or the Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By James L. CurtisAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis:  We had blogged previously that OSHA appealed an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruling that severely limited OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine and citation of a “controlling employer” general contractor. Acosta v. Hensel Phelps Constr. Co., No. 17-60543 (5th Cir. August 4, 2017).  The Fifth Circuit has now reversed the ALJ, and upheld OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine.

In dramatic language, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (governing federal law in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana) announced, that “thirty-seven years ago, this court, in a tort case, announced that ‘OSHA regulations protect only an employer’s own employees’.”  Melerine v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc., 659 F.2d 706, 711 (5th Cir. 1981).  That decision had endured despite the seismic shift brought about by Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), and of broader employer liability under the Act.  Acosta v Hensel Phelps Construction, No 17-60543 (5th Cir November 26, 2018).  OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine enables the Agency to cite employers who are “controlling,” “exposing,” “creating,” or “correcting” safety hazards.  OSHA regularly cites general contractors as “controlling” employers with regard to hazards only faced by subcontractor employees.

In the instant appeal, the Court was asked whether OSHA has the authority, under either the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C. § 651 et seq. (the Act), or regulations, “to issue a citation to a general contractor at a multi-employer construction worksite who controls a hazardous condition at that worksite, even if the condition affects another employer’s employees.”  The Court concluded that OSHA does indeed have that authority under the Act.

Factually, an OSHA compliance officer conducted an inspection of the site and discovered three sub-contractor employees working at the base of an unprotected wall of evacuated soil.  The contractor’s and the subcontractor’s superintendents were present at the wall, with full views of the subcontractor’s employees working near the wall.  OSHA cited both contractor and the subcontractor for willfully violating 29 C.F.R. § 1926.652(a)(1) for allegedly “exposing employees to a cave-in hazard from an unprotected excavation at a construction site.”

The ALJ determined that the contractor met the requirements to be considered a “controlling employer” who had a duty under 29 U.S.C. § 651 et seq., to “act reasonably to prevent or detect and abate violations at the worksite even when the affected employees are those of another employer.”  However, because the citation arose within the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit, the ALJ found that “Fifth Circuit precedent foreclosed the citation” against the general contractor.  The ALJ relied on Melerine, Inc., 659 F.2d at 711, finding that “an employer at a worksite within the Fifth Circuit cannot be held in violation of the Act when the employees exposed to the hazard were employees of a different employer.”

Rather than follow Commission precedent and uphold the citation, the ALJ found that “where it is highly probable that a Commission decision would be appealed to a particular circuit, the Commission has generally applied the precedent of that circuit in deciding the case – even though it may differ from the Commission’s precedent.” Kerns Bros. Tree Service, Docket No. 96-1719, 2000 WL 294514 (Mar. 16, 2000).  Therefore, the ALJ ruled that “applying 5th Circuit precedent, Respondent cannot be liable for a violation of the Act based solely upon a subcontractor’s employees’ exposure to the condition,”  and vacated the citation.

The Court here concluded that “an agency’s interpretation of its governing statute in an administrative adjudication ‘is as much an exercise of delegated lawmaking powers as is the Secretary’s promulgation of a workplace health and safety standard… The Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine is an agency document that provides guidance to OSHA inspectors as to when it may be appropriate to cite a particular employer.”  The Secretary did not derive any authority from the Policy in issuing the citation to Hensel Phelps; “he relied on the statute itself and engaged in adjudication on the basis of that statutory authority.”  The Court found that the Secretary’s construction of the statute as granting authority to issue citations to controlling employers is a “reasonably defensible” one.

Accordingly, OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine is now fully enforceable in the Fifth Circuit.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Brent I. ClarkJames L. CurtisAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Last month at the 2018 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress the speakers noted that “safety programs shouldn’t end when employees walk out the door and get into a vehicle to drive.”  The session was presented by Karen Puckett, the Director for the Center for Environmental Excellence Division of Enterprise Development at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Lisa Robinson, Senior Program Manager for Employer Transportation Safety, for the NSC. 

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics provided that in 2017 transportation deaths from crashes were the leading cause of workplace deaths in the USA.  These statistics are often lost on safety professionals because OSHA has no jurisdiction over transportation incidents on public roads.  Additionally, 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that 40% of employment fatalities were due to transportation incidents.

Puckett noted that the goal for the NSC’s program was to have considered the best practices for employees who drive for work.  This employment-based driving included not just fleet trucks and other vehicles, which are normally considered in company employee driving policies and training programs, but also any personally-owned employee vehicles and rental cars, vans, and other trucks that employees may use while doing company business.  Puckett explained that vehicles outside of the regular company fleet are often overlooked.

Puckett’s key takeaway was that the company’s personnel policy on driving and accident prevention and the related training materials and systems need to incorporate a recognition of these powerful statistics.  Employers need to build a workplace that promotes responsible driver behaviors, maintenance procedures and records, and effective training programs.

Robinson noted that the employer may also face considerable liability for any fatalities that come from employees driving on company business, however that is demanded by state law in the many states and localities the company may operate in.  Perhaps common sense behaviors for employee drivers to know are company policies prohibiting driving impaired by drugs or alcohol, driving while using a cellphone such as checking email, texting, or using the phone.  Many company policies do not incorporate these kinds of prohibitions.

Robinson concluded by illustrating numerous multi-million dollar jury verdicts and settlement agreements where employers were held responsible — even some where the employee was involved in activities or behaviors that some might reasonably suggest were not in the line of their employment.

For your further information, we have previously blogged on these related issues, including Drive Much? NIOSH Focus on Workplace Safety for Employees Who Drive for Their Job, President Declares “National Impaired Driving Prevention Month”, Asleep at the Wheel: Trucking Company’s Sleep Apnea Policy and Procedures Reviewed by Federal Courts, Impact of Driver Compensation on Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety, Eleventh Circuit Finds Insurance Carrier Responsible In Georgia For Harm Done by Intoxicated Employee, Employees Driving In Illinois? What Employers Need to Know, and Distracted Driving Leads to Employee Accidents and Fatalities.

Employer Takaway

For employers the key points from this session are that employee behavior on public roadways could have a big impact on the workplace.  The employer should have appropriate policies and training systems in place as part of a comprehensive safety program, with an aim to “improve your workplace driving safety culture.”

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Benjamin D. Briggs, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: OSHA has just reminded temporary staffing agencies and their clients (i.e., host employers) that they are jointly responsible for a  temporary employee’s safety and health in two new guidance documents relating to respiratory protection, noise exposure, and hearing conservation. Temporary agencies and host employers that use their services should review this guidance in carrying out their shared responsibility for temporary worker safety.

Nearly two years after the last bulletin, OSHA has just released two new temporary worker bulletins relating to respiratory protection, noise exposure, and hearing conservation.  See Temporary Worker Initiative (TWI) Bulletin No. 8 – Respiratory Protection, and Temporary Worker Initiative Bulletin No. 9 – Noise Exposure and hearing Conservation.

We have blogged previously about OSHA’s enforcement activities and guidance documents relating to temporary workers: “OSHA Releases Two More Temporary Worker Guidance Documents,” “New Guidance for ‘Recommended Practices’ to Protect Temporary Workers,” “OSHA Issues Memo to ‘Remind’ its Field Staff about Enforcement Policy on Temporary Workers,” and “OSHRC Reviews Employment Relationships.”

Under TWI Bulletin No. 8, OSHA notes that both the host employer and staffing agency are “jointly responsible to ensure workers wear appropriate respirators when required. While both the host and the staffing agency are responsible to ensure that the employee is properly protected in accordance with the standard, the employers may decide that a division of the responsibility may be appropriate. Neither the host nor the staffing agency can require workers to provide or pay for their own respiratory protection when it is required.”

Under TWI Bulletin No. 9, OSHA notes that both the host employer and staffing agency are jointly responsible for ensuring that “workers receive protection from hazardous noise levels when it is required under OSHA standards. Neither the host nor the staffing agency can require workers to provide or pay for their own hearing protection devices or require workers to purchase such devices as a condition of employment or placement. In addition, employees must be paid for the time spent receiving their audiograms, and the audiograms must be at no cost to the employee.”

Employer Takeaway

It is OSHA’s view that staffing agencies and host employers are jointly responsible for temporary workers’ safety and health. However, as the two newly published bulletin’s make clear, fulfilling the shared responsibility for temporary worker safety requires thoughtful coordination between staffing agencies and host employers. OSHA has previously acknowledged that a host employer may have more knowledge of the specific hazards associated with the host worksite, while the staffing agency has a more generalized safety responsibility to the employees. As a result, OSHA allows host employers and staffing agencies to divide training responsibilities based upon their respective knowledge of the hazards associated with the specific worksite. While host employers will typically have primary responsibility for training and communication regarding site specific hazards, staffing agencies must make reasonable inquiries to verify that the host employer is meeting these requirements.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.

By Mark A. Lies, IIAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: A recent Eastern District of Wisconsin case held that an OSHA 11(c) retaliation claim will survive summary judgment where the employer failed to comply with its own investigation procedures.

In Acosta v Dura-Fibre, No. 17-C-589, 27 OSHC 1179 (ED Wis. May 30, 2018), under the employer’s, Dura-Fibre, LLC’s (Employer), Accident Reporting/Investigation Plan (Injury Reporting Policy), if an employee is injured or almost injured at work, he must report the injury or “near miss.”  The Employer instituted the Injury Reporting Policy to emphasize timeliness in reporting injuries and to create a “near miss” program to increase reports of unsafe acts that did not result in injury.   The Injury Reporting Policy required that an employee notify a supervisor of an accident or “near miss” as soon as possible, or by the end of the employee’s shift.  The Injury Reporting Policy defined accident as “any occurrence that led to physical harm or injury to an employee and/or led to damage of company property” and near miss as “any occurrence that did not result in an accident but could have.”

The Employer required that employees report all injuries, even if the employee did not consider the injury to be serious.  Any employee that failed to report an accident or near miss in a timely manner could be subjected to discipline up to and including termination.  After the company’s assessment of the injury report, a “Safety Incident Report” would be prepared that determined whether the employee should receive disciplinary points in accordance with the Employer’s 24-point disciplinary program.  Under the disciplinary program, employees may be assigned a designated number of points for violations of the company’s rules and policies, such as failing to report an injury to a supervisor by the end of his shift, failing to use safety equipment, or committing an “unsafe act.”

The Injury Reporting Policy does not, though, define the phrase “unsafe act.” With the uncertain definition of the term “unsafe act” and the disciplinary points employees could receive for committing an “unsafe act,” the Secretary argued that employees were naturally reluctant to report injuries or illnesses they sustained.

The Court noted that as such, employees who suffered injuries on the job found themselves in a classic “catch 22”: “if they are injured at work, they must report the injury to a supervisor or face discipline, but if they do report an injury, management may well conclude the injury resulted from their own unsafe act for which they will also face discipline. Either way, the employee risks discipline.”  It is in this context that this claim arises.

The Secretary asserted that the Employer violated section 11(c) the OSH Act when it retaliated against the Employee by assessing him disciplinary points after he reported injuries on two separate occasions, and then ultimately terminated him under its disciplinary policy.

The Employer did not dispute that the Secretary had satisfied the first and second elements of the prima facie case.  The Employee engaged in protected activity when he reported to company management that he injured his ankle and another employee injured his shoulder. The Employee suffered three adverse actions in the form of disciplinary points for the late reporting of the other employee’s injury, and for engaging in an unsafe act in relation to his own injury, as well as termination of his employment.

The Court found sufficient evidence of pretext from two sources.  First, the Company did not discipline employees who reported “unsafe acts” relating to near misses.  Accordingly, the Court concluded that injured employees were allegedly more likely to be disciplined and thereby deterred from reporting .  Second, the Court noted that the Employer failed to follow its own accident investigation procedures.  The Court found a  technical “apparent deviation” from the procedure enough to be a triable issue, and denied summary judgment.  The case will proceed to trial.

Accordingly, employers need to maintain reporting policies with regard to all unsafe acts, near misses, and accidents.  Employers must consistently investigate accidents and enforce all safety rules.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the author, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Teams.

By Jeryl L. OlsonPatrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In another business-friendly move, the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) recently directed its Attorneys to not use its civil enforcement authority for violations based on agency guidance documents.

On January 25, 2018, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand released an Department memo “Limiting Use of Agency Guidance Documents In Affirmative Civil Enforcement Cases.” (“Brand Memo”), directed to the Heads of Civil Litigating Components within the USDOJ directing that the Department no longer prosecute cases based solely on violations of various agencies’ “guidance documents”.

The USDOJ, (which effectively acts as “outside counsel” to departments and agencies including the DOL, EPA, OSHA, ATF and DEA, among others, in cases exceeding certain penalty thresholds and other criteria) may no longer prosecute cases against alleged violators unless the violations are of properly promulgated regulatory requirements, not agency guidance documents or policies. The practice of agencies, such as EPA, pursuing enforcement actions against companies who have failed to comply with “guidance” has long been a concern of the regulated community and their defense counsel; we frequently challenge and object to EPA’s efforts to enforce “guidance” that has not gone through public notice ad comment rulemaking. It is a relief that the USDOJ will no longer be a party to such enforcement cases.

The Brand Memo is a follow-up to an earlier memo issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on November 16, 2017 (“Guidance Policy” or “Sessions Memo”), which instituted a new policy that prohibits the Department of Justice from using its civil enforcement authority to convert agency guidance documents into binding rules. The Sessions Memo “prevents the Department of Justice from evading required rulemaking processes by using guidance memos to create de facto regulations. In the past, the Department of Justice and other agencies had blurred the distinction between regulations and guidance documents.”

The Brand Memo states that “…consistent with our duty to uphold the rule of law with fair notice and due process, this policy helps restore the appropriate role of guidance documents and avoids rulemaking by enforcement.” “Although guidance documents can be helpful in educating the public about already existing law, they do not have the binding force or effect of law and should not be used as a substitute for rulemaking.”

Under the USDOJ’s new policy, USDOJ civil litigators are “prohibited from using guidance documents—or noncompliance with guidance documents—to establish violations of law in affirmative civil enforcement actions.”The Brand Memo also indicates that “the Guidance Policy . . . prohibits the Department from using its guidance documents to coerce regulated parties into taking any action or refraining from taking any action beyond what is required by the terms of the applicable statute or lawful regulation.” Finally, the Brand Memo confirms that the USDOJ “…should not treat a party’s noncompliance with an agency guidance document as presumptively or conclusively establishing that the party violated the applicable statute or regulation.”

While the Brand Memo applies only to future affirmative civil enforcement actions brought by the Department, as well as, “wherever practicable,” those matters pending as of January 25, 2018, we see the Guidance Policy and the Brand Memo as welcome relief from arbitrary use of guidance by departments and agencies such as the DOL, OSHA, or EPA in enforcement proceedings of regulated industry.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth OSHA Compliance, Enforcement & Litigation Team or the Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Jeryl L. OlsonKay R. Bonza, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In a guidance document issued last week, U.S. EPA sets out to deliberately move environmental enforcement responsibilities back to the states. While this may, to local interests, represent a noble purpose, few states are manned and ready to take on additional responsibilities.

In yet another move providing relief to industry from federal enforcement, the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) last week issued an Interim Guidance on Enhancing Regional-State Planning and Communication on Compliance Assurance Work in Authorized States (January 22, 2018) (Guidance).

The Guidance, issued by OECA Assistant Administrator Susan Parker Bodine to Regional Administrators, suggests, with respect to enforcement cases,  a more collaborative partnership between the EPA and states with authorized environmental programs.  It applies to all EPA compliance assurance activities, and Bodine anticipates it will  “develop principles and best practices for State and EPA collaboration in inspections and enforcement, work planning and implementation, National Enforcement Initiatives, and outcome and performance measurement.”

The Guidance sets out the expectation that EPA Regional Offices and their respective states will henceforth work together to achieve environmental compliance rather than EPA repeatedly auditing state level efforts (or from the standpoint of regulated industry, interfering with them).  The Guidance calls for the Region and State to discuss and share information including lists of planned inspections as well as an understanding concerning when a facility will be informed of an inspection in advance.  For any planned program audits, “EPA findings should be considered preliminary until the State has had an opportunity to review and respond.”  Except in emergency situations, EPA aims to allow states to address a deficiency prior to being subject to enforcement action.

Under the Guidance, EPA recognizes that States are given “primacy” in authorized programs.  “With respect to inspections and enforcement, EPA will generally defer to authorized States as the primary day-to-day implementer of their authorized/delegated programs….”  EPA expects to “step in”,  in limited circumstances where actions require specialized EPA equipment and/or expertise, or where noncompliance issues need to be tackled at an interstate level.  Generally, “the Region should defer to the State except where the EPA believes that some EPA involvement is warranted.”

While the notion of cooperative federalism grants states leeway to decide how best to enforce environmental programs, allowing them to consider the unique circumstances and stakeholder interests in their state, the reality is the Guidance places a heavy burden on states to take on more responsibilities while dealing with their own budgetary constraints.  “Cooperative federalism” presumes states have adequate financial support to implement complex environmental requirements.

OECA expects to evaluate the success of the Guidance by requesting that Regions provide a progress report by September 28, 2018.  Unless the new approach is coupled with adequate financial support from the federal government to assist states in implementing complex and broad federal requirements, the collaborative partnership that the Guidance aims to achieve may be strained from inception.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By James L. Curtis, Brent I. Clark, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: As expected, OSHA has appealed an ALJ ruling that severely limits OSHA’s “controlling employer” enforcement policy. Acosta v. Hensel Phelps Constr. Co., No. 17-60543 (5th Cir. 8/4/17).

This case involves an unprotected excavation at a construction site that both parties agreed was in in violation of OSHA’s trenching standards.  The Respondent was the general contractor on the construction project with overall control and responsibility for the worksite.  The Respondent also had management employees on site who were present at the excavation who “could have easily” prevented the subcontractor’s employees from working in the unprotected excavation but did not do so.  However, the Respondent did not have any of its own employees who were exposed to the hazardous excavation.

OSHA cited Respondent as a “controlling employer” under OSHA’s multi-employer policy and longstanding Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission precedent that has held that “an employer who either creates or controls the cited hazard has a duty under § 5(a)(2) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 666(a)(2), to protect not only its own employees, but those of other employers ‘engaged in the common undertaking’.” McDevitt Street Bovis, Docket No. 97-1918 (Sept. 28, 2000).  “An employer may be held responsible for the violations of other employers ‘where it could reasonably be expected to prevent or detect and abate the violations due to its supervisory authority and control over the worksite.”’ Summit Contractors, Inc., Docket No. 05-0839 (Aug. 19, 2010).

Nonetheless, while the Commission has upheld “controlling employer” citations based on exposure to another employer’s employees, this violation occurred at a jobsite in Austin, Texas, which was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.  In 1981, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the OSH Act, its legislative history, and implemented regulations, serve to protect “an employer’s own employees from workplace hazards.”  ALJ’s emphasis.  Melerine v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc., 659 F.2d 706 (5th Cir. 1981).  Accordingly, rather than follow Commission precedent and uphold the citation, the ALJ found that “where it is highly probable that a Commission decision would be appealed to a particular circuit, the Commission has generally applied the precedent of that circuit in deciding the case – even though it may differ from the Commission’s precedent.” Kerns Bros. Tree Service, Docket No. 96-1719 (Mar. 16, 2000).  Therefore, the ALJ ruled that “applying 5th Circuit precedent, Respondent cannot be liable for a violation of the Act based solely upon a subcontractor’s employees’ exposure to the condition,”  and vacated the citation.

OSHA is appealing the ALJ’s decision to the 5th Circuit hoping that the 5th Circuit will reverse its 1981 holding in Melerine v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc.   This case represents a serious threat to OSHA’s multi-employer policy.  If upheld by the 5th Circuit, OSHA’s “controlling employer” policy may be in jeopardy. We will keep our readers apprised as this case develops.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.

By Benjamin D. Briggs, Brent I. ClarkJames L. Curtis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

iStock_000042612884_MediumSeyfarth Synopsis: In an interesting outcome, an OSHRC Administrative Law Judge recently vacated a citation to an alleged “controlling employer” based on 5th Circuit precedent – despite being contrary with OSHA policy and other OSHRC precedent.

A recent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (Commission) Administrative Law Judge, Brian A. Duncan’s decision, in Hensel Phelps Construction Co., Docket No. 15-1638 (April 28, 2017), considered whether Respondent, as the general contractor for the project, can be held liable for the violation as a “controlling employer.”  Additionally, the parties argued and stipulated that under 5th Circuit case law, that OSHA’s “controlling employer” policy has been invalidated and is unenforceable.

The Commission has held that “an employer who either creates or controls the cited hazard has a duty under § 5(a)(2) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 666(a)(2), to protect not only its own employees, but those of other employers ‘engaged in the common undertaking’.” McDevitt Street Bovis, Docket No. 97-1918 (Sept. 28, 2000).  “An employer may be held responsible for the violations of other employers ‘where it could reasonably be expected to prevent or detect and abate the violations due to its supervisory authority and control over the worksite.”’ Summit Contractors, Inc., Docket No. 05-0839 (Aug. 19, 2010).

In the facts in this case, according to the ALJ, the Respondent had overall construction management authority on the project.  Pursuant to its contract with the City of Austin, and as the jobsite general contractor, Respondent also had authority through its officials and agents to stop construction work performed by subcontractors when hazardous conditions were found, and to prevent them from continuing work due to safety concerns.  Respondent’s onsite safety managers had previously exercised control over jobsite safety by stopping subcontractor work, and by removing subcontractor employees from the jobsite.  In fact, “Respondent’s Area Superintendent … and … Project Superintendent … were actually present when CVI employees were performing work in the unprotected area of the excavation.”

However, this violation occurred at a jobsite in Austin, Texas, which was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.  In 1981, the Fifth Circuit, according to the ALJ, ruled that the OSH Act, its legislative history, and implemented regulations, serve to protect “an employer’s own employees from workplace hazards.”  ALJ’s emphasis.  Melerine v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc., 659 F.2d 706 (5th Cir. 1981).  In this case, the ALJ clarified that that “where it is highly probable that a Commission decision would be appealed to a particular circuit, the Commission has generally applied the precedent of that circuit in deciding the case – even though it may differ from the Commission’s precedent.” Kerns Bros. Tree Service, Docket No. 96-1719 (Mar. 16, 2000).

Therefore, the ALJ ruled that “applying 5th Circuit precedent, Respondent cannot be liable for a violation of the Act based solely upon a subcontractor’s employees’ exposure to the condition.”  The citation was vacated.

For employers this outcome raises a clear example of where, if issued an OSHA citation, such as under OSHA’s multi-employer citation policy, it is important to review the citation from the big picture, including the law, regulations, and all case law precedent that might impact the citation on the particular employer.  The jurisdiction in which the case arises matters.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.

By Andrew H. Perellis, Kay R. Bonza, and Craig B. Simonsen

iStock_000009254156LargeSeyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Attorney General has directed the Department of Justice to no longer allow payments to third parties as part of resolving federal cases.  For environmental cases, this prohibition could significantly limit, if not ban, the use of SEPs.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo last week to all Department of Justice staff and 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices, prohibiting payments to nongovernmental entities that are not a party to the litigation as part of a negotiated settlement.  Several environmental groups have interpreted this memo to altogether ban supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) in matters where DOJ is involved.

We previously blogged about EPA’s updated policy documents involving SEPs.  In the environmental context, SEPs are used to allow an alleged violator to voluntarily undertake an environmentally beneficial project related to the violation, in exchange for mitigation of the penalty to be paid.  EPA has traditionally viewed SEPs as furthering “EPA’s goal of protecting and enhancing public health and the environment.”  For example, one company paid for soil restoration on federal land as part of its compensation for air pollution violations at some of its power plants in North Carolina.  Corporate defendants have been agreeable to SEPs as they promote positive public relations.

Not every environmental settlement requires the involvement of DOJ, so for these matters, at least for the moment, SEPs remain available in resolving an alleged violation.  But for matters that require referral to DOJ for resolution, it is a different outcome.  The Attorney General’s memo prohibits DOJ attorneys from entering into “any agreement on behalf of the United States in settlement of federal claims or charges…that directs or provides for a payment or loan to any non-governmental person or entity that is not a party to the dispute.”  By doing this, Sessions is seeking to curb settlement funds from being used to benefit third-party special interest groups or political friends of those in power.

The Sessions’ memo includes two exceptions that may allow SEPs to be utilized in narrow circumstances – when structured so that a governmental entity, instead of a non-governmental organization, receives the SEP benefit, and when the benefit “directly remedies the harm.”  It remains to be seen how DOJ will apply these exceptions as the Sessions’ memo does not elaborate as what constitutes a “governmental entity” or the nexus needed to “directly remedy the harm.”  What is clear is that corporate defendants will see a reduction in the use of SEPs as part of environmental settlement agreements that are negotiated by the DOJ.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.