Judge Michelle Childs, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, wrote a unanimous decision that rejected a coal mining contractor’s effort to contest a decision by the Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Commission that agreed to penalties levied against the company for safety violations. A primary issue in the case, whether courts should defer to an agency ‘s interpretation of its regulations, will be considered by the Supreme Court in 2023-24. The July 2023 decision was in GMS Mine Repair v Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Comm.
What is this Case About?
GMS Mine Repair & Maintenance is a mining contractor company that provided services to a West Virginia coal mine in 2021. During that time, the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA) issued several safety citations against it and proposed a penalty of over $73oo. The company agreed that it had been seriously negligent but contested the amount of the fine, although the Commission upheld the penalty decision.
The issue came down to the interpretation of a Labor Department regulation concerning calculation of administrative penalties for safety violations based in part, as required by the relevant statute, on the history of a company’s previous violations. Following its consistent practice since 1982, MSHA considered all safety citations and orders against GMS that became final during a fifteen-month “look-back period.” GMS argued, however, that only citations and orders that were both issued and became final during that period could count in its violation history. That interpretation would have cut the fine in half. GMS sought review of the agency decision in the DC Circuit.
How did Judge Childs and the DC Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?
Judge Childs wrote a unanimous opinion that rejected GMS’ position and upheld the fine against it. Judge Childs carefully considered the standards with respect to agencies’ interpretations of their own rules as established by the Supreme Court in its Chevron and Kisor decisions.
Specifically, Judge Childs explained, the Court held that a lower court should first determine whether an agency rule is “genuinely ambiguous” based on its text, history, structure, and purpose. If so, then the court must determine whether to defer to the agency’s “reasonable interpretation” based on those factors as well as the agency’s “expertise,” the “authoritativeness” of the interpretation, and whether it reflects the agency’s “fair and considered judgment.”
Based on this analysis, Judge Childs concluded that the language of the regulation was ambiguous but that the court should defer to the agency’s interpretation. Key factors in the determination included the agency’s “decades-long practice” of so interpreting the rule, the fact that deciding “when and how to assess” penalties for “mine safety violations” falls within the agency’s “expertise,” and the conclusion that the agency’s interpretation would help “protect miners the way Congress intended.”
Judge Childs’ opinion is important in promoting coal mine safety through strict enforcement of mine safety rules, both in this and future cases. It also provides a significant example of how and why courts should defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own rules as the Supreme Court is about to consider that very issue and the vitality of Chevron in a case it will hear in 2023-24. The holding is also yet another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Childs to our federal courts.