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Appeals court hears arguments in Murray Energy coal miner intimidation case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral arguments Jan. 15 in a case to determine whether the CEO of Murray Energy Corp. interfered with his employees' right to report unsafe working conditions to the federal government.

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission determined that CEO Robert Murray acted in a "coercive, intimidating manner" when he held mandatory meetings announcing a policy of reporting safety hazards to the company and regulators. Murray Energy appealed the decision and secured a stay on the commission's orders in August 2018.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration received dozens of safety complaints after Murray Energy purchased five West Virginia coal mines from Consol Energy Inc., and the agency issued 42 citations for serious safety issues through July 2014. Murray Energy has said the policy's intent was not to dissuade employees from submitting safety concerns to MSHA but rather to ensure the company knew about the issues sooner and could quickly address them.

Appellate Judges Patricia Millett, Cornelia Pillard and Harry Edwards peppered attorneys with questions about their interpretation of section 105(c) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which protects miners from discrimination and interference for filing complaints. Margaret Lopez, who represented Murray Energy, argued that the plain language in the section requires a motive for the operator's action to be a concern for protected activity, while Emily Toler Scott countered on behalf of the commission that the section does not require a motive to establish interference.

Miners' participation is "essential" to mine safety enforcement, and federal law protects even "frivolous" safety claims, Scott said. Operators could implement a policy asking miners to report safety concerns to management and to regulators if the stipulation protected miners' anonymity was presented without hostility and ensured workers were still aware of their reporting rights, something the secretary of labor's office would likely be willing to help companies draft. While such policies could be lawful, Murray's is not, Scott said.

Laura Karr, speaking for the United Mine Workers of America, which is acting as an intervenor in the case, claimed that Murray established a mandatory work rule, though the CEO called it a recommendation, that a "reasonable miner" would view as their employer's expectation. Should a company want to impose a similar policy, the union should work with management to draft it, Karr said.

Lopez said Murray's presentation to employees included only three slides related to section 103(g) of the mine safety act, which deals with miners' ability to report safety concerns anonymously, and the portion of the presentation was motivated by "invalid complaints that had no safety merit."

The judges did not say when they plan to rule on the case.