Appellate court review does not appear to be an option for mine operators seeking relief from orders temporarily reinstating miners in discrimination cases.
Citing lack of jurisdiction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, has thrown out a case filed by a West Virginia coal operator brought under a doctrine allowing review of cases that are in the midst of adjudication.
After Cobra Natural Resources fired a miner in October 2012, the miner alleged he had been released for making safety complaints and promptly filed a discrimination claim with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Cobra argued the discharge was lawful because the miner was laid off as part of a reduction-in-force announced the following month at its Mountaineer Mine.
However, the administrative law judge disagreed with Cobra, ruling the complaint had not been brought frivolously, and ordered the miner to be temporarily reinstated pending review of the case on its merits. He rejected Cobra’s contention that the miner’s discharge was part of a reduction-in-force. Cobra appealed to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, specifically challenging the judge’s analysis of its layoff argument. The Commissioners agreed to hear Cobra’s case, but upheld the judge’s ruling. Cobra then appealed to the Fourth Circuit.
In a split decision, issued January 27, the three-judge appeals panel said the case did not meet requirements necessary for an appeal to be heard while the case was still being heard by the Commission. The “collateral order doctrine,” allowing cases still being litigated to be heard on appeal if there is a compelling collateral reason, was to be applied stringently and only in exceptional cases, the court explained. The majority said Cobra’s appeal did not rise to that level.
The judges said their review applied to the entire category of cases the Cobra proceeding represented. Thus, the court appeared intent on discouraging other companies from also seeking relief from a temporary reinstatement order in appellate courts.
In his 30-page rebuttal, the dissenting judge argued the Commission decision requiring reinstatement did represent a final agency order. Therefore, he reasoned, the court could have assumed jurisdiction without resorting to the collateral order doctrine. He said he would have decided the case on its merits and remanded the panel’s decision to the Commission.