On December 29, 2016, a three-judge panel from the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit unanimously vacated two OSHA citation items issued to a Delek Refining Ltd. (“Delek”) facility for alleged safety violations that occurred years prior to its ownership of the refinery. The decision is a significant victory for employers because it marks the second time that a federal appeals court has rejected OSHA’s attempt to allege the existence of a “continuing violation” that suspends the six-month statute of limitations contained in the OSH Act.
In 2008, OSHA issued citations to Delek under its PSM standard for the alleged failure to resolve recommendations from process hazard analyses (“PHAs”) and audits that were conducted in 1994, 1998, 1999, 2004, and 2005 — all prior to Delek’s acquisition of the refinery. The PSM standard requires employers to update PHAs every five years, conduct compliance audits every three years, and address PHA and audit findings “promptly” after they have been completed. The OSH Act states that no citations may be issued more than six months following “the occurrence of any violation.”
OSHA argued that the alleged failures to address the PHA and audit findings were “continuing violations” that would not trigger the OSH Act’s statute of limitations until they were abated. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, extending the DC Circuit’s reasoning in Volks Constructors v. Secretary of Labor (the “Volks decision”), in which the court rejected OSHA’s claim that violations of its record-keeping regulations were continuing violations that prohibited the statute of limitations from expiring until they were corrected.
In reaching its decision, the Fifth Circuit panel stated that OSHA’s position, if adopted, would permit OSHA to issue citations in perpetuity after the occurrence of a safety violation—an outcome that would be inconsistent “with the basic purposes of a statutory limitations period” and “utterly repugnant to the genius of our laws.” Rather, the Fifth Circuit held that the failure to address a PHA or audit recommendation is a single violation for the purposes of the statute of limitations and reasoned that a strict interpretation of the OSH Act’s six-month statute of limitations in this context would “provide security and stability,” and prevent OSHA from instituting enforcement actions under the PSM provisions at issue long after the relevant witnesses’ memories had faded and the available evidence had gone stale.
Consistent with the Volks opinion, the Fifth Circuit panel in Delek left open the possibility that a continuing violation that tolls the statute of limitations could exist where an employer fails to correct a persistent hazard to employee health or safety. Nonetheless, the Delek decision is hugely important because it is a clear repudiation of OSHA’s long-standing claim that the Volks decision applied only to record-keeping violations. As such, the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Delek signals that courts will continue to place the burden on OSHA to justify citations issued outside of the six-month limitations period, and heralds a growing consensus that exclusions from the OSH Act’s statute of limitations should be strictly limited.