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Decided: January 21, 2016

The Fourth Circuit denied Knox Creek’s petition for review.

This case stemmed from a series of inspections that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (“MSHA”) conducted in Knox Creek’s Tiller Mine, four citations of which are at issue in the case, three permissibility violations and one accumulations violation. Although the ALJ found that the Secretary had not provided sufficient evidence that the violations were “significant and substantial” (“S&S”), but on review, the Commission found that the ALJ had applied the test incorrectly, and when it clarified the standard, found that the permissibility citations were S&S. As to the accumulations violation, the ALJ determined that it too was not S&S, and the Commission reversed that decision as well. The Commission then remanded to the ALJ for it to recalculate the penalties in light of the violations’ S&S designation. Once the ALJ imposed the revised penalties, and the Commission denied Knox Creeks’ petition for review, the Fourth Circuit determined that it was then ripe for review.

The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by disposing the challenge that the Commission exceeded its statutory standard of review because it reversed findings of the ALJ that were supported by substantial evidence. The Court found that the Commission did not reverse the ALJ’s factual findings, and instead reversed solely based on the correction of the legal error and clarified the legal standard that the ALJ was to use in determining if the violations were S&S. The Court went through the familiar Chevron analysis when looking at ambiguities in the statute of the Mine Act, and found that the second requirement of Mead was lacking, so the Secretary’s litigation position was not entitled Chevron deference. However, the Court noted that some deference was still to be given to the Secretary’s interpretation. The Court then looked at the Mathies test, and found that the Secretary’s interpretation of its third prong was consistent with earlier precedent and legislative intent, that a reviewer is to assume the existence of the relevant hazard when analyzing the third prong. The Court also dismissed Knox Creek’s argument that such an interpretation would change the test to allow every violation to be deemed S&S, because the third prong still required evidence that the hazard was reasonably likely to result in an injury-producing event, and because the second prong was still necessary in the analysis. In applying the legal standard, the Court then found that the S&S determinations were supported by substantial evidence, and denied the petition for review.

Full opinion

Jennie Rischbieter