In recent months, Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission judges have been rejecting settlement agreements and denying settlement motions with more frequency due to a lack of justification for proposed citation modifications and penalty reductions. In most cases, settlements between mine operators and the Department of Labor (DOL) were approved by the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs or Judges) with little hesitation due to judicial efficiency. The court’s time was seemingly better spent on cases not likely to end in a settlement so the parties and the ALJ can prepare for hearing. However, the settlement motions filed by the DOL have been denied in many cases this past year due to a lack of justification for such modifications, beyond the vagaries of trial.
There have been numerous cases within the past two months where penalty reductions of over 90% were rejected because the factual justification was found lacking by the ALJ for such significant penalty reductions. Additionally, in cases where the settlement motions disregarded special assessment decisions and penalty figures handed down by MSHA, detailed justification must be provided or the parties risk being fast-tracked for trial. In cases where many citations have been settled prior to hearing, both parties are required to provide fact-based reasons why citation paper has been changed. For example, if a citation has been modified from Significant and Substantial to Not Significant and Substantial, along with a penalty reduction, the settlement document must outline why these changes have been made in order to secure the Judge’s approval. Prior to this year, settlement motions had been granted even if detailed justification was lacking substance. However, the Judges have signaled a new direction with several settlement rejections on the basis of a failure to explain the reasons behind the settlement terms.
Judges have wide discretion to assess civil penalties, including the ability to raise and lower penalties as they see fit. However, Judges also use various criteria when determining appropriate penalties, such as violation history, the mine operator’s size, abatement, and the severity of the alleged violations. It is within these criteria that Judges require a factual basis for settlement agreement modifications. Absent detailed reasons, cases seemingly headed for settlement may see the inside of a courtroom.