445 U.S. 1 (1980), 78-1870, Whirlpool Corp. v. Marshall

Docket Nº:No. 78-1870
Citation:445 U.S. 1, 100 S.Ct. 883, 63 L.Ed.2d 154
Party Name:Whirlpool Corp. v. Marshall
Case Date:February 26, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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445 U.S. 1 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 883, 63 L.Ed.2d 154

Whirlpool Corp.

v.

Marshall

No. 78-1870

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 26, 1980

Argued January 9, 1980

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Section 11(c)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (Act) prohibits an employer from discharging or discriminating against any employee who exercises "any right afforded by" the Act. Respondent Secretary of Labor promulgated a regulation providing that, among other rights protected by the Act, is the right of an employee to choose not to perform his assigned task because of a reasonable apprehension of death or serious injury coupled with a reasonable belief that no less drastic alternative is available. Claiming that a suspended wire mesh screen in petitioner's manufacturing plant used to protect employees from objects occasionally falling from an overhead conveyor was unsafe, two employees of petitioner refused to comply with their foreman's order to perform their usual maintenance duties on the screen. They were then ordered to punch out without working or being paid for the remainder of their shift, and subsequently received written reprimands, which were placed in their employment files. Thereafter, respondent brought suit in Federal District Court, alleging that petitioner's actions against the two employees constituted discrimination in violation of § 11(c)(1) of the Act, and seeking injunctive and other relief. While finding that the implementing regulation justified the employees' refusals to obey their foreman's order, the District Court

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nevertheless denied relief, holding that the regulation was inconsistent with the Act, and therefore invalid. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, agreeing that the employees' actions were justified under the regulation but disagreeing with the conclusion that the regulation was invalid.

Held: The regulation in question was promulgated by respondent in the valid exercise of his authority under the Act, and constitutes a permissible gloss on the Act, in light of the Act's language, structure, and legislative history. Pp. 8-22.

(a) The regulation clearly conforms to the Act's fundamental objective of preventing occupational deaths and serious injuries. Moreover, the regulation is an appropriate aid to the full effectuation of the Act's "general duty" clause, which requires an employer to furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious injury to the employees. The regulation thus, on its face, appears to further the Act's overriding purpose and rationally complements its remedial scheme. Pp. 11-13.

(b) The facts that Congress, at the time it was considering passage of the Act, rejected a so-called "strike with pay" provision (whereby an obligation would be imposed on employers to continue to pay employees who absented themselves from work for reasons of safety), and also rejected a provision that would have given the Labor Department, in imminent danger situations, the power temporarily to shut down all or part of an employer's plant, do not indicate a congressional intent incompatible with an administrative interpretation of the Act such as is embodied in the regulation at issue. In contrast to the "strike with pay" provision, the regulation does not require employers to pay workers who refuse to perform assigned tasks in face of imminent danger, but simply provides that, in such case, the employer may not "discriminate" against the employees involved. And in contrast to the "shutdown" provision, the regulation accords no authority to Government officials, but simply permits private employees to avoid workplace conditions that they believe pose grave dangers to their own safety, and does not empower such employees to order their employers to correct the hazardous condition. Pp. 13-21.

593 F.2d 716, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (Act)1 prohibits an employer from discharging or discriminating against any employee who exercises "any right afforded by" the Act.2 The Secretary of Labor (Secretary) has promulgated a regulation providing that, among the rights that the Act so protects, is the right of an employee to choose not to perform his assigned task because of a reasonable apprehension

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of death or serious injury coupled with a reasonable belief that no less drastic alternative is available.3 The question presented in the case before us is [100 S.Ct. 887] whether this regulation is consistent with the Act.

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I

The petitioner company maintains a manufacturing plant in Marion, Ohio, for the production of household appliances. Overhead conveyors transport appliance components throughout the plant. To protect employees from objects that occasionally fall from these conveyors, the petitioner has installed a horizontal wire-mesh guard screen approximately 20 feet above the plant floor. This mesh screen is welded to angle-iron frames suspended from the building's structural steel skeleton.

Maintenance employees of the petitioner spend several hours each week removing objects from the screen, replacing paper spread on the screen to catch grease drippings from the material on the conveyors, and performing occasional maintenance work on the conveyors themselves. To perform these duties, maintenance employees usually are able to stand on the iron frames, but sometimes find it necessary to step onto the steel mesh screen itself.

In 1973, the company began to install heavier wire in the screen because its safety had been drawn into question. Several employees had fallen partly through the old screen, and on one occasion an employee had fallen completely through to the plant floor below, but had survived. A number of maintenance employees had reacted to these incidents by bringing the unsafe screen conditions to the attention of their foremen. The petitioner company's contemporaneous safety instructions admonished employees to step only on the angle-iron frames.

On June 28, 1974, a maintenance employee fell to his death through the guard screen in an area where the newer, stronger

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mesh had not yet been installed.4 Following this incident, the petitioner effectuated some repairs and issued an order strictly forbidding maintenance employees from stepping on either the screens or the angle-iron supporting structure. An alternative, but somewhat more cumbersome and less satisfactory, method was developed for removing objects from the screen. This procedure required employees to stand on power-raised mobile platforms and use hooks to recover the material.

On July 7, 1974, two of the petitioner's maintenance employees, Virgil Deemer and Thomas Cornwell, met with the plant maintenance superintendent to voice their concern about the safety of the screen. The superintendent disagreed with their view, but permitted the two men to inspect the screen with their foreman and to point out dangerous areas needing repair. Unsatisfied with the petitioner's response to the results of this inspection, Deemer and Cornwell met on July 9 with the plant safety director. At that meeting, they requested the name, address, and telephone number of a representative of the local office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Although the safety director told the men that they "had better stop and think about what [they] were doing," he furnished the men with the information they requested. Later that same day, Deemer contacted an official of the [100 S.Ct. 888] regional OSHA office and discussed the guard screen.5

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The next day, Deemer and Cornwell reported for the night shift at 10:45 p.m. Their foreman, after himself walking on some of the angle-iron frames, directed the two.men to perform their usual maintenance duties on a section of the old screen.6 Claiming that the screen was unsafe, they refused to carry out this directive. The foreman then sent them to the personnel office, where they were ordered to punch out without working or being paid for the remaining six hours of the shift.7 The two men subsequently received written reprimands, which were placed in their employment files.

A little over a month later, the Secretary filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, alleging that the petitioner's actions against Deemer and Cornwell constituted discrimination in violation of § 11(c)(1) of the Act.8 As relief, the complaint prayed, inter alia, that the petitioner be ordered to expunge from its personnel files all references to the reprimands issued to the two employees, and for a permanent injunction requiring the petitioner to compensate the two employees for the six hours of pay they had lost by reason of their disciplinary suspensions.

Following a bench trial, the District Court found that the regulation in question9 justified Deemer's and Cornwell's refusals to obey their foreman's order on July 10, 1974. The court found that the two employees had "refused to perform the cleaning operation because of a genuine fear of death or serious bodily harm," that the danger presented had been "real, and not something which [had] existed only in the minds of the employees," that the employees had acted in good faith,

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and that no reasonable alternative had realistically been open to them other than to refuse to work. The District Court nevertheless denied relief, holding that the Secretary's regulation was inconsistent with the Act, and therefore invalid. Usery v. Whirlpool Corp., 416 F.Supp. 30, 32-34.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court's judgment. 593 F.2d 715...

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