4th Circuit Lacks Jurisdiction In Discrimination Reinstatement Case

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit lacks jurisdiction to act upon a mining company’s appeal of a Review Commission decision upholding the temporary reinstatement of a miner.

Market conditions forced the mining company, Cobra Natural Resources, to shut down the mine while the miner’s case is pending before an ALJ. The company argued the miner’s temporary reinstatement, even if granted, should be tolled, or end, as of Jan. 15, 2012, the last date the laid-off miners were paid.

The Commission ruled in favor of the miner, Russell Ratliff, stating that his case was not frivolous, and noting conflicting testimony over certain facts. This sent the case back to the ALJ, and the temporary reinstatement for miner Ratliff remained in effect.

The company laid off 14 employees of the mine, but nine of those miners were transferred to other company operations. Five of the miners from Cobra were permanently terminated. The mining operator argued that even if Ratliff had not been fired, he would have been terminated as part of the reduction in force due to his job evaluations.

While the company used the job evaluation as a reason for firing Ratliff, it was also noted in Ratliff’s evaluation he “had a reputation for being ‘difficult’ because he was ‘a stickler on safety rules.’”

Conflicting Evidence
In affirming the ALJ’s order for temporary reinstatement, the commissioners noted conflicting evidence in the record concerning whether the job evaluations were entirely unrelated to miners’ protected activities, and as previously established, it is “not the judge’s duty, nor is it the Commission’s, to resolve the conflict in testimony at the temporary reinstatement stage of the proceedings.”

In denying the company’s appeal, the 4th Circuit said that only a final Commission order is entitled to review in an appeals court, and Cobra cannot appeal until there is a final Commission ruling on whether Cobra discriminated against the miner. In this case, the court said it was clear that the ruling on temporary reinstatement was not final disposition of the case before the Commission.

“It is not the place of appellate courts to scrutinize agency action at every step … Rather we must proceed cautiously, allowing lower decision makers thoroughly to resolve the intricacies of underlying claims.”

While both the Secretary and Cobra relied on a 20-year-old ruling involving Jim Walter Resources, the court noted that Cobra may use the “tolling” defense pursuant to the Commission’s 2009 ruling in Gatlin v. KenAmerican Resources (31 FMSHRC 1050; 16 MSHN 373).

“In the volatile coal mining industry, the prospect that a mine could be idled or a major layoff occur provides little support for expending the time and resources of an appellate court on tentative or non-final agency decisions. And, as the Commission decision demonstrates, a ruling on temporary reinstatement can be expressly held open for the possibility of reconsideration. Accordingly, an interlocutory Commission ruling awarding temporary reinstatement to a coal miner such as Ratliff fails to satisfy the initial requirement of the collateral order doctrine,” the court said.

Temporary Reinstatement
While Cobra said the Commission’s decision on temporary reinstatement was “significant and irreparable,” the court said 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.

“We readily recognize, of course, that economic harm suffered by a coal operator may sometimes be ‘imperfectly reparable’ on final order review. The collateral order doctrine, however, requires a great deal more … we are unable to conclude that failing to apply the collateral order doctrine to an administrative order temporarily reinstating a coal miner to his job would imperil a ‘particular value of a high order’ or a ‘substantial public interest.’”

COBRA NATURAL RESOURCES, LLC, v. FMSHRC, MSHA, on behalf of Russell Ratliff, 1/27/2014, CA 4 No.13-1406; 21 MSHN D-352