Court Dismisses COVID-19 Lawsuit Against OSHA Regarding Meatpacking Plant

On Tuesday, the Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissed a lawsuit against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Department of Labor (DOL), alleging that the governmental bodies should have done more to protect workers at Maid-Rite Specialty Foods, a meatpacking plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania, during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the order, Judge Malachy E. Mannion granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, as well as their motion to strike three exhibits from the record. The accompanying memorandum explained that in making the ruling, it considered whether the district court would have jurisdiction in this matter when an OSHA inspector had not recommended action or determined that there was imminent danger. 

The complaint initially was filed in July 2020 by a group of unnamed plaintiffs, along with Friends of Farmworkers, which does business as Justice at Work. They asked the court to require the defendants to direct the plaintiffs’ employer, Maid-Rite, to take more steps to protect employees including allowing physical distance between workers. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants should have issued a citation to their employer. In February 2021, the plaintiffs asked for an imminent danger order in their favor.

According to the memorandum, the defendants informed the court in December that they had done an investigation of the meatpacking plant and that they were not going to issue a citation. A letter addressed to the plaintiffs from OSHA detailed steps the plant had taken to address workplace concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic and suggested some additional steps the plant could take to limit exposure to the virus; however, the plaintiffs continued to claim that the COVID-19 policies were not sufficient and that OSHA was ignoring guidance by not requiring the plant to make additional changes. 

After this inspection, the defendants asked the court to determine that the issue is moot because the “Plaintiffs’ disagreement with OSHA’s decision does not present a live controversy in that there is no relief the court can provide.” 

The court in its memorandum said that “both parties miss(ed) the mark,” contending that the issue is not moot. However, the reasons cited by the plaintiff for this were not correct. It said that “because OSHA’s recent actions do not alter the court’s ability to grant Plaintiffs the relief which they seek, mootness does not apply.” 

As explained in the memorandum, the matter was dismissed because OSHA did open an investigation into complaints it received and did not find that there was an imminent danger. The court said it agreed with the defendant’s interpretation of the law and that the employees were not entitled to petition the court in this matter because of the lack of imminent danger.

“Put simply,” the memorandum said, “the court cannot review the Secretary’s decision for arbitrariness or capriciousness where there has been no Secretarial decision.” 

The plaintiffs are represented by Towards Justice, Public Justice P.C., Nicholas Kaster PLLP, and their own counsel.