Court Dismisses COVID-19 Related Suit Against Amazon

In a decision filed today, Palmer et al v., Inc. et al (EDNY 20-cv-02468 Nov. 2, 2020), the Eastern District of New York granted defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ complaint, which asserts (i) public nuisance, (ii) breach of the duty to provide a safe workplace under NY Labor Law § 200, (iii) failure to timely pay COVID-19 leave, and (iv) an injunction against future failure to timely pay COVID-19 leave.

In this case, plaintiffs – who work at Amazon’s Staten Island JFK8 facility and/or live with those who do – claim, inter alia, that Amazon’s operations at their JFK8 facility fail to comply with applicable workplace guidance, and that Amazon failed to properly and timely pay workers for the full amount of the leave to which they are entitled. They seek both injunctive relief and monetary damages.

Initially, the Court held that the “primary jurisdiction doctrine” applied to plaintiffs’ nuisance and Labor Law § 200 claims. This doctrine “seeks to maintain a proper balance between the roles of courts and administrative agencies” and “allows a district court to refer a matter to the appropriate administrative agency for ruling in the first instance, even when the matter is initially cognizable by the district court.”

Here, the Court held, the application of the primary jurisdiction doctrine was warranted in light of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) expertise.

From the decision:

Plaintiffs argue that their workplace safety claims simply “require the application of law to disputed facts” and do not implicate OSHA’s expertise and discretion. I disagree. The central
issue in this case is whether Amazon’s workplace policies at JFK8 adequately protect the safety of its workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. No doubt, shutting down JFK8 completely during the pandemic while continuing to provide employees with pay and benefits would be the best protection against contagion at the workplace. But someone has to strike a balance between maintaining some level of operations in conjunction with some level of protective measures. The question is whether it should be OSHA or the courts.

Plaintiffs seek relief that involves detailed aspects of how Amazon regulates its workplace, from how Amazon manages employee productivity, to the time and tools provided to sanitize workstations, to the availability of air-conditioned break rooms, among other injunctive mandates. Plaintiffs’ claims thus turn on factual issues requiring both technical and policy expertise. They would have me analyze how Amazon’s employment practices and policies impact transmission of a poorly understood disease in JFK8, determine whether those policies create an unsafe workplace or otherwise violate state and federal guidance and standards, and implement and oversee new workplace policies. But courts are not expert in public health or workplace safety matters, and lack the training, expertise, and resources to oversee compliance with evolving industry guidance. Plaintiffs’ claims and proposed injunctive relief go to the heart of OSHA’s expertise and discretion.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court also noted:

  • the risk of inconsistent rulings (given that “[t]his case concerns state and federal guidance addressing workplace safety during a pandemic for which there is no immediate end in sight” where “[t]here is room for significant disagreement as to the necessity or wisdom of any particular workplace policy or practice”);
  • that plaintiffs have not made an application for relief to OSHA; and
  • that “the advantages of applying the doctrine outweigh the potential costs of delay in the administrative proceedings.”

Based on this, the court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, but did so without prejudice, which in the Court’s view “is preferable to a stay here so that plaintiffs may determine whether to seek relief through the appropriate administrative and regulatory framework.”

(Although the Court held that dismissal was warranted under the primary jurisdiction doctrine in deference to OSHA, it proceeded to explain why plaintiff’s public nuisance and Labor Law § 200 claims would be dismissed anyway on the merits.)

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