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A federal appeals court on Tuesday denied a mining company’s petition to review a decision and sanctions imposed for alleged violations of miners’ statutory right to anonymously file health and safety complaints with federal agencies.
In Marshall County Coal Co. v. Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission decision against the coal company.
Several miners and a union representative filed complaints with the U.S. Secretary of Labor against Marshall County Coal Co. of Moundsville, West Virginia, which is a subsidiary of Clairsville, Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., which operates five underground coal mines in West Virginia. The miners claimed that Murray Energy interfered with their rights to file anonymous complaints with the Mine Safety and Health Administration regarding health and safety issues, according to court documents.
A subsidiary of Murray Energy acquired the five mines December 2013, and soon after, MSHA received numerous complaints from miners alleging safety and health hazards and violations. During the subsequent six months, MSHA conducted inspections and issued 42 citations and orders.
The company sent a letter to the president of the United Mine Workers of America about the rash of complaints and began holding a series of mandatory awareness meetings for workers during each shift. The meetings highlighted safety awareness, but also discussed the impact of government regulations on the industry and the miners’ livelihoods, and also instructed miners that they must report unsafe situations and compliance issues to management, noting that employees had the right to report to federal agencies but were also required to make the same reports to mine management.
The union and the miners filed a complaint, and an administrative law judge issued a decision finding that the mining company was liable for interference, stating that a reasonable miner would have left an awareness meeting “thinking that mine management was hostile to the … complaint process, particularly with regard to how miners had been exercising their rights.” She also concluded that Murray Energy had established a rule requiring any MSHA complaint to be reported to management, “thereby risking exposure of the miner’s identity and undermining the Mine Act’s guarantee of anonymity.” She proposed a fine of $30,000.
Murray sought review, but the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission upheld the judge’s decision, finding that Murray Energy had violated the MSHA by interfering with the miners’ statutory rights, but vacated the monetary penalties and remanded the case for reassessment since the mining company had since filed a lawsuit in federal court against the union. The judge imposed a penalty of $20,000 per violation, ordered the company to rescind its management reporting policy, and required the CEO to personally hold a meeting at each of the five mines and read a statement regarding the petitions.
Murray filed a petition for review with the D.C. Circuit, alleging that the commission erred in failing to consider whether the mining company’s actions were motivated by an intention to interfere with the miners’ protected rights.
The appellate court, however, denied the petition for review. Although Murray argued that the slide presentations used at its awareness meetings could not be “reasonably interpreted to reflect an attempt to interfere with miners’ rights” the court disagreed, noting that the slides told miners that their jobs, futures and livelihoods were at risk, and that the “general tenor” of the slides would have dissuaded miners from making complaints.
The appellate court also declined to review the penalties, agreeing with the administrative law judge’s determination that the gravity of the violation was significant in the “intimidating and threatening manner in which the policy was presented.”
The attorneys for Murray Energy and the union declined to comment on the decision. Murray Energy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced it will begin focusing inspections and mine visits on lone miner situations after five of eight miner fatalities this year have involved miners working alone.