Wake Forest Law Review

Fourth Circuit Denies Review of Administrative Order & Civil Penalties Following a Fatal Coal Mine Accident

By Kelsey Hyde

On November 10, 2016, the Fourth Circuit published an opinion in the case of Consol Buchanan Mining Company v. Secretary of Labor.  The Fourth Circuit denied Consol’s petition for review of an order by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, finding the appellant mining company negligent and subject to penalties for violations of mining regulations. The Fourth Circuit found the administrative law judge did not err in finding that Consol had fair notice of the dangerous conditions, which ultimately led to the avoidable death of a miner, and that Consol’s actions constituted “unwarrantable failure” to comply with the applicable mine-safety regulations.

Appellant’s Fatal Mine Accident & Subsequent Proceedings

The fatal accident that ultimately led to this action occurred on January 11, 2012, in a Virginia coal mine operated by appellant, Consol Buchanan Mining Co. (“Consol”). Consol’s mine had a six-inch main line that supplied water for various uses, including firefighting and suppressing coal dust. The line was constructed with several valves to allow water flow for such uses. At one point, the water line was above the floor of the mine, but had since been buried by the accumulation of dust and debris over several years. Because the line runs adjacent to the equipment trackways, valves were regularly struck by machinery traveling on the tracks, and Consol was aware that these valves were being hit and damaged by moving equipment. Consol had also removed certain leverage bars provided by the manufacturer to open and close the valves.

On the day of the accident, Section Foreman Gregory Addington (“Addington”) had been assigned to help oversee two other miners move a shuttle car across the mine. During this process, the crew struck a fire valve extending out from the main waterline which split the valve and sent a fountain of water shooting out into the mine. Ultimately, they were unable to fully close the valve because of the excessive debris that had accumulated, and because the proper leverage bar was unavailable. Moreover, the damage to the fire valve made it unable to bear the necessary level of water pressure. The valve was suddenly ejected, fatally striking one of the miners.

Following the accident, the Mine Safety & Health Administration (“MSHA”) conducted an investigation and eventually concluded the accident had resulted from the failed closure of the inoperable valve. MSHA then petitioned the Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Commission (“Commission”) to assess civil penalties against Consol for violating two mine safety regulations: (1) failing to remove unsafe mining machinery or equipment from service, based on reusing the damaged fire valve, in violation of 30 C.F.R. § 75.1725(a); and (2) failing to ensure all firefighting equipment was maintained in a usable and operative condition, based on making the leverage bars unavailable and unable to ensure valves could be properly closed, in violation of 30 C.F.R. § 75.1100-3. After an evidentiary hearing, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) from MSHA found Consol in violation based on their “unwarrantable failure” to comply with the respective regulations, and imposed a civil penalty of $70,000 per violation. After an unsuccessful petition for discretionary review by the agency, the ALJ’s decision was made final and Consol petitioned the Fourth Circuit for review.

Challenges & Standards of Review on Appeal

Through this appeal, Consol challenged the MHSA order on the following three grounds: (1) Consol lacked fair notice that their acts were in violation because MSHA had not previously cited them for such infractions; (2) Addington, the foreman in the accident, was not acting as Consol’s agent and therefore negligence could not be imputed ; and (3) the ALJ erred in finding Consol demonstrated heightened negligence through their failure to comply with the mining regulations.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the ALJ’s factual findings as they relate to these challenges under the “substantial evidence” standard, which involves assessing “relevant evidence such that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion.” Almy v. Sebelius, 679 F.3d 297, 301 (4th Cir. 2012). For any legal conclusions, the Fourth Circuit operated under the de novo standard, offering deference to the agency’s interpretations of ambiguities, when necessary. After a full review of the record as a whole, the court proceeded with each of Consol’s three separate challenges under these standards of review.

Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Adopts the “Reasonably Prudent Miner” Test

The court disagreed with Consol’s contention that they were not given adequate notice that their conduct would constitute a violation, and were thus deprived of due process of law when penalized for the violations. Although the court recognized parties subject to administrative sanctions are so entitled to adequate notice of what would constitute proscribed conduct, whether a party lacks such adequate notice hinges on a fact-specific analysis. To make this determination in the specific context of mining and MSHA regulations, the Fourth Circuit chose to adopt the “reasonably prudent miner” test, that both the agency and other Circuit courts have employed in related cases. The test considers “whether a reasonably prudent person familiar with the mining industry and the protective purposes of the standard would have recognized the specific prohibition or requirement of the standard.” DQ Fire & Explosion Consultants, Inc., 36 FMSHRC 3083, 3087 (Dec. 2014).  The court found this rule more conducive with Congress’s intent to place the responsibility of maintaining safety on the mine operators, as well as the practical limitations of administrative agencies enforcement power if a rule of explicit notice for all potential violations were required. Applying this objective standard to the present case, based on all evidence in the record, the court found that a reasonably prudent miner would indeed recognize that actions and ongoing conditions at Consol’s mine were in violation of MSHA regulations, certainly placing miners at risk, and, thus, Consol had fair notice that their actions could result in sanctions.

Foreman Addington was an agent of the Mine Operator

            The court also disagreed with Consol’s assertion that Addington, the foreman involved in moving the shuttle car that eventually caused the accident, was not an agent of Consol. The court instead found the Addington’s negligence was properly considered in assessing Consol’s negligence. Here, the court looked to the Mine Act, which allows a mine operator to be liable for the negligence of anyone who qualifies as an “agent”, defined as any person “charged with responsibility for the operation of all or part of a coal or other mine or the supervision of the minders in a coal or other mine.” 30 U.S.C. § 802(e). Furthermore, applications of this definition by the agency itself, as well as courts of other Circuits, have yielded a broad definition of agency, not limited to concepts of liability at common law, but instead focused on whether the miner exercised managerial or supervisory responsibilities at the time of his negligent conduct. Here, the court found the ALJ properly determined Addington was serving as a supervisor of the other miners, and therefore Consol’s “agent.” The court did consider the record as a whole, but found the testimony of other miners, referring to Addington as “the boss” and indicating they would have certainly followed his instructions at the time of this valve accident, as most dispositive of his supervisor role at the time of this negligent conduct that led to the accident. As such, the court held that there was indeed substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s conclusion that Addington was Consol’s agent. 

The ALJ Did Not Err in Finding Appellant’s Violations Were “Unwarrantable Failure” to Comply with MSHA Regulations

            Consol’s final challenge, disputing the ALJ’s finding of aggravated negligence based on their “unwarranted failure” to comply with mining regulations, was similarly denied by the Fourth Circuit. An unwarranted failure to comply with such regulations involves conduct otherwise inexcusable or not justifiable, such that the aggravating conduct amounted to more than ordinary negligence. In the initial order, the ALJ considered a variety of “aggravating factors” to determine whether the operator’s conduct was not justifiable, including: the length of time of violative condition, a high degree of danger, the obviousness of the violation, any efforts to abate violative condition, notice of violation, or notice of necessity for further efforts to reach compliance. Again, reviewing the record as a whole under the “substantial evidence” standard, the court found substantial support for the findings regarding Consol’s display of these aggravating factors, including: the extended period of time over which the violations persisted, the obviousness of the open and broken valve, the significant danger these conditions posed to miners, Consol’s knowledge of frequent instances of damage to the valves, and even a prior incident of injury involving the damaged valves. Accordingly, the court found no error in the ALJ’s finding that Consol demonstrated an aggravated lack of due care, more than ordinary negligence, in failing to remedy these dangerous conditions of which they were on notice.

Fourth Circuit Denies Petition for Review

            Upon finding no error in the ALJ’s conclusions that appellant Consol had fair notice of dangerous conditions, and that the fatal accident in question occurred based on Consol’s unwarrantable failure to comply with the applicable regulations, the Fourth Circuit denied Consol’s petition for review of the agency’s order and imposition of civil penalties.

mining

By Daniel Stratton

On March 8, 2016, the  Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Peabody Holding Company, LLC v. United Mine Workers of America, vacating the district court’s decision. The Fourth Circuit held that under the complete arbitration rule, an arbitrator handling a labor dispute between Peabody Holding and United Mine Workers of America should have been allowed to finish resolving both the liability and remedial phases of the dispute before the matter was moved to federal court.

United Mine Workers and Peabody Coal Company Enter into Job Opportunity Agreement

In 2007, the United Mine Workers of America and Peabody Coal company entered into a Memorandum of Understanding Regarding  Job Opportunities (“Jobs MOU”). Peabody Coal signed the agreement on behalf of itself and its parent company, Peabody Holding. The purpose of the Jobs MOU was to require non-unionized companies within the Peabody corporation to give preference to coal miners who either worked for or were laid off by Peabody Coal with regards to hiring treatment. The Jobs MOU included an arbitration clause that required all disputes involving the MOU to be submitted to an arbitrator, whose decisions would be final and binding.

That same year, Peabody Energy Corp., the ultimate corporate parent of Peabody Holding,  Peabody Coal, and another company, Black Beauty Coal Company, began a process to spinoff part of its mining operation into a new entity known as Patriot Coal Corporation. Peabody Coal was spun off into Patriot. All of the Peabody subsidiaries that became part of Patriot had been signatories to the Jobs MOU. The only subsidiary that had been a signer to the Jobs MOU that was not spun off into Patriot was Black Beauty. At the completion of the spinoff, Peabody Coal had no corporate relationship with Peabody Holding or Black Beauty.

In 2008, Black Beauty hired United Minerals Company to assist with mining operations on Black Beauty’s property. Both United Minerals Company and Black Beauty were non-unionized. Shortly after United Minerals Company began working with Black Beauty, the United Mine Workers of America sent a letter to Peabody Energy and Peabody Holding explaining that Peabody Holding and Black beauty were still bound by the Jobs MOU. Peabody disagreed, arguing that after Peabody Coal had been spun off, the rest of the Peabody corporate family no longer had any obligation under the Jobs MOU.

Peabody initially argued that this dispute with United Mine Workers was not arbitrable, an argument that the Fourth Circuit rejected in 2012. After being sent back to arbitration, the union and Peabody agreed to bifurcate the dispute into separate liability and remedy phases. The arbitrator ruled that the Jobs MOU remained in effect despite the fact that Peabody Coal had no corporate relationship with Peabody Holding. The arbitrator declined to rule on whether or not Black Beauty was actually exempt from the Jobs MOU, deferring its decision on that question until the remedy stage.

Peabody and United Mine Workers Take Their Dispute to the Courts

Peabody sought to vacate the arbitrator’s decision, filing an declaratory judgment action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. At the same time, the United Mine Workers filed a counterclaim to enforce the decision by the arbitrator.  Under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), some courts viewed their jurisdiction as being limited to “review of final arbitration awards,” while others believed that Section 301 provided “sweeping jurisdiction.” The district court ultimately declined to weigh in on that debate, instead noting that because the liability portion of the arbitration was finished, it was final and therefore reviewable. The district court found in favor of the union, holding that the arbitrator was right to find the Jobs MOU still valid. Peabody and its subsidiaries appealed the district court’s decision. After the parties briefed the appeal, the Fourth Circuit asked for additional briefing on whether the arbitrator’s decision was even properly before the circuit, because the arbitration was not yet complete.

The Limits and Scope of the Complete Arbitration Rule

Under Section 301 of LMRA, federal district courts have jurisdiction over suits involving contract violations between employers and unions. The Supreme Court has long held that Section 301 can be used to seek enforcement of an arbitration award made under a collective bargaining agreement’s arbitration clause. As a threshold matter however, a court must determine that the award is final and binding. Many courts have held this to mean that an arbitrator must have ruled on both liability and remedies before the decision can be reviewable.

Some judicial decision viewed the complete arbitration rule as a restriction on federal jurisdiction. Other decisions had focused on Section 301’s broad language, and have viewed the complete arbitration rule to be “only a prudential limitation on judicial involvement” in an arbitrated labor dispute.

The Fourth Circuit Finds that the Arbitration Decision was sent to the Courts Too Soon

The Fourth Circuit noted that several courts which view the complete arbitration rule in jurisdictional terms still concede that there are exceptions to the rule in extreme cases. Based on this, the Fourth Circuit noted that this necessarily meant that the complete arbitration rule only constituted a prudential limitation. The Court also noted many policy rationales for the complete arbitration rule were the same as those used for strictly jurisdictional relatives. Like the rules that require a district court to enter a final judgment or order before an appellate court can review the case, the complete arbitration rule promotes the same goals of preventing “piecemeal litigation and repeated appeals.” Applying the complete arbitration rule also helps prevent a party from using courts to delay the arbitration, the Fourth Circuit noted.

In terms of actually applying the complete arbitration rule, the Fourth Circuit noted that the application was straightforward. Generally, when an arbitrator decides liability and “reserves jurisdiction to decide remedial questions” later, a federal court should wait to review until all questions have been resolved.  The Court was unpersuaded by Peabody’s arguments that the liability phase was final and thus reviewable. The Fourth Circuit noted that such a division was sensible and common. Just because the parties decided to split their dispute did not change the fact that they agreed to submit the entire dispute to the arbitrator.

The Fourth Circuit also quickly dismissed Peabody’s arguments that reviewing the liability portion now would promote efficiency. Such efficiency arguments could potentially be applied to virtually any case, the court noted, before explaining that by waiting until after the remedy portion was resolved the court was actually promoting efficiency. This was because the parties could still reach a settlement at some point, making a review of the liability portion moot. The Fourth Circuit concluded by explaining that arbitration is a matter of contract, and as such the parties should be able to design an arbitral process that best suits the needs of the parties.

The Fourth Circuit Remands the Case Back to the Arbitrator

The Fourth Circuit ultimately held that the arbitrator’s decision had been prematurely sent to the courts, and remanded the case back to the district court to remand the case back to the arbitrator to continue the arbitration.

By Alina Buccella

Today, the Fourth Circuit certified a question to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in a case involving a dispute over mining rights. The question certified is, “[w]hether the proponent of his own working interest in a mineral lease may prove his entitlement thereto and enforce his rights thereunder by demonstrating his inclusion within a mining partnership or partnership in mining, without resort to proof that the lease interest has been conveyed to him by deed or will or otherwise in strict conformance with the Statute of Frauds.”

Under West Virginia law, each partner in a mining partnership must have an interest in the land mined or an interest in the lease covering the land mined. However, the law is not clear as to whether this interest needs to be granted by deed or will exclusively, or even if it needs to be in writing at all. The outcome of this case will depend on what the West Virginia Supreme Court answers, because the plaintiff does not have evidence of actual conveyance by will or deed of his real property interest. In this case, the plaintiff relied only on parole evidence to show that he maintains a working interest in four mines operated by the defendant as a result of his proportional participation in the mining partnership. To see more details about the facts of the lawsuit, you can read the full order of certification here.