Mine operators and employee interveners lost their joint appeal to U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals -- where the Court agreed with the Commission that MSHA acted within its statutory and constitutional authority to issue document demands for employee medical and personnel records. Big Ridge, Inc., et al., v. Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, et. al., __ F.3d __, Nos.12-2316 & 12-2460 (7th Cir. 2013).

In the underlying case, the Secretary of Labor issued citations alleging violations of 30 C.F.R. § 50.41. Section 50.41 states that:

Upon request by MSHA, an operator shall allow MSHA to inspect and copy information related to an accident, injury or illnesses which MSHA considers relevant and necessary to verify a report of investigation required by §50.11 of this part or relevant and necessary to a determination of compliance with the reporting requirements of this part.

The Administrative Law Judge upheld the MSHA citations and orders upon finding that the operators had violated section 50.41 when they failed to cooperate with a 30 C.F.R. Part 50 audit, by refusing to provide the requested information.  The Commission agreed with the ALJ.

On appeal, the mine operators and miner employees challenged the document demands on several grounds. They contended:

  1. That MSHA did not have the authority to require mine operators to comply with document demands for employee medical and personnel records under the Act or relevant regulations;
  2. That the relevant regulation, 30 C.F.R. § 50.41, is not a reasonable interpretation of the Mine Safety Act which was not properly promulgated;
  3. That the document demands infringed the mine operators’ Fourth Amendment right not to be searched without a warrant;
  4. That the demands violated the miners’ Fourth Amendment privacy rights in their medical records;
  5. That the daily penalties MSHA imposed for failure to comply violated the mine operators’ Fifth Amendment right to due process of law; and
  6. That the demands conflict with a variety of other federal and state laws.

In disposing of all of these contentions, the Court agreed with the Commission that MSHA acted within its statutory and constitutional authority both in demanding information that would permit MSHA to verify the accuracy of mine operators’ injury reports and in issuing citations and monetary penalties when mine operators refused to comply. Specifically, the Court found that “although the Mine Safety Act does not expressly refer to MSHA’s document review power as the power to issue an ‘administrative subpoena,’ the authority the Act confers upon MSHA amounts to an administrative subpoena in substance.”

This case again illustrates the need for employers to carefully interface with MSHA as it interacts with the Company. The need to protect the Company from citations and excessive penalties, and the necessity of protecting the Company’s employees’ privacy, demand cautious, measured responses.