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Cobra Natural Resources, LLC v. Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Comm’n, No. 13-1406

Decided: January 27, 2014

The Fourth Circuit held that it was without jurisdiction to consider a coal operator’s petition for review following the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission’s (the “Commission”) decision to temporarily reinstate a coal miner.

Russell Ratliff (“Ratliff”) filed a discrimination complaint with the Secretary of Labor (“Secretary”), alleging that Cobra Natural Resources, LLC (“Cobra”) discharged him after he voiced safety concerns with respect to Cobra’s mining operation; thus violating the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977’s (“the Mine Act”) whistleblower provision. In accordance with the Mine Act, after receiving Ratliff’s discrimination complaint, the Secretary determined it was not “frivolously brought” and applied to the Commission for an order temporarily reinstating Ratliff’s employment. Cobra, however, disagreed with the Secretary’s finding and requested a hearing before an ALJ, contending that Ratliff’s complaint was frivolous and also asserting a tolling defense. A coal operator’s temporary reinstatement obligation can be “tolled” by the occurrence of certain events, such as a subsequent reduction-in-force that would have included the miner.

At the hearing, the ALJ agreed with the Secretary that Ratliff’s discrimination complaint was not frivolously brought and also rejected Cobra’s tolling contention, concluding that Cobra had failed to show that work was not available to Ratliff because of an asserted multi-employee layoff. As a result, Ratliff was immediately reinstated with the same hours of work, rate of pay, and benefits received. Cobra next sought Commission review. The Commission affirmed the ALJ’s decision. Cobra then filed this petition for review, summarily asserting jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine and contending that the Commission erroneously denied Cobra’s tolling defense.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit found that it was without jurisdiction to consider Cobra’s petition for review. In doing so, it noted that the Mine Act authorizes “any person adversely affected or aggrieved by an order of the Commission” to seek review in the appropriate court of appeals. Importantly, although the Act uses the term “order” rather than “final order,” the Court recognized that only final Commission orders are entitled to review. Thus, the issue before the Court was whether the Commission’s decision granting temporary reinstatement was immediately appealable by Cobra under the collateral order doctrine.

Having explained the issue before it, and having noted the limited persuasive effect of sister circuit court decisions on the issue, the Court assessed each requirement of the collateral order doctrine. Analyzing the first requirement: that a putatively appealable order conclusively determine a disputed question, the Court held that, because an order of temporary reinstatement remains subject to modification during the pendency of a coal miner’s discrimination complaint, it fails to satisfy this initial requirement. Next, the Court held that, because the considerations involved in the temporary reinstatement process are deeply enmeshed with the same issues comprising the miner’s underlying discrimination claim, it plainly failed the collateral order doctrine’s “separate” requirement. Lastly, the Court addressed the doctrines third requirement: that the order be “effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment.” Again, the Court held that this requirement was not met because Cobra’s implicated interest was primarily economic in nature. In so holding, the Court noted that a coal operator’s financial interest in avoiding wage payments to a reinstated miner who returns to his job in the coal mines pales in comparison to those interests that have been deemed sufficiently important to give rise to collateral order jurisdiction.

Full Opinion

– W. Ryan Nichols