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Decided: March 27, 2014 

The Fourth Circuit held that the Dickenson-Russell Coal Company (Dickenson Coal) had an unconditional duty—under Part 50 regulations to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, 30 C.F.R. § 50.20(a)—to file an MSHA Mine Accident, Injury, and Illness Report Form 7000-1 (Form 7000-1) within ten work days of Charlie Wood’s (Wood) occupational injury at a Dickenson Coal mine.  The Fourth Circuit therefore denied Dickenson Coal’s petition for review.

Dickenson Coal owns and operates a coal mine, the Roaring Fork No. 4 Mine (Roaring Fork), in Virginia.  Bates Contracting and Construction, Inc. (Bates), an independent contractor, provided miners to work at Roaring Fork.  In May 2009, Wood—a Bates employee—suffered an occupational injury at Roaring Fork.  Wood was under Dickenson Coal’s control and supervision on the day of the incident.  Three days after the incident, Bates reported Wood’s injury to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) by submitting a Form 7000-1; however, Dickenson Coal did not report the injury.  In July 2009, the MSHA cited Dickenson Coal for “failure to timely report an occupational injury and file a Form 7000-1,” per the requirements of 30 C.F.R. § 50.20(a).  Dickenson Coal then contested the MSHA citation before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) appointed by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (the Commission).  Dickenson Coal contended that Bates was an operator under § 50.20(a); thus, “either Bates or Dickenson Coal could have satisfied the obligation to report Wood’s injury.”  The ALJ ruled against Dickenson Coal, finding that Bates was not an operator under the regulatory definition of the term, 30 C.F.R. § 50.2(c)(1), because it was not “operating, controlling, or supervising” activities at Roaring Fork at the time of the injury.  Thus, the ALJ found that Bates was not a required reporter under § 50.20(a)—and therefore concluded that Bates’s Form 7000-1 filing was gratuitous and “did not relieve Dickenson [Coal] of its [reporting] obligations under section 50.20(a).”  The Commission declined Dickenson Coal’s request for discretionary review, and Dickenson Coal petitioned the Fourth Circuit.  On petition for review, Dickenson Coal argued that that ALJ incorrectly applied the regulatory definition of operator in § 50.2(c)(1) rather than the statutory definition of the term, 30 U.S.C. § 802(d)—under which, according to Dickenson Coal, independent contractors clearly qualify as operators.  Dickenson Coal asserted that, where an incident involves more than one required reporter, only one of the reporters needs to file a Form 7000-1.

The Fourth Circuit found the language of § 50.20(a) unambiguous; thus, the Fourth Circuit declined to apply Auer deference to the agency’s interpretation of the regulation.  Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452.  However, the Fourth Circuit found the ALJ’s decision consistent with the plain language of § 50.20(a): the Fourth Circuit concluded that, even if Bates qualifies as an operator, Bates’s Form 7000-1 filing did not excuse Dickenson Coal from filing its own Form 7000-1—as § 50.20 requires every operator subject to the reporting requirement to report every relevant injury or accident.  The Fourth Circuit also rejected Dickenson Coal’s argument that such an interpretation of § 50.20(a) will lead to absurd results, noting that the Secretary of Labor stated plausible reasons for requiring potentially duplicative reports under the regulation.

Full Opinion

– Stephen Sutherland