Court of Appeals affirms miners union can investigate explosion
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a preliminary injunction permitting the United Mine Workers of America to participate in the investigation of a deadly mine explosion at West Virginia's Sago Mine.
Among other things, operator Wolf Run Mining Co. argued that the anonymous designation by two of the union's miners as their representative in the investigation was nothing more than an attempt by the labor organization to begin organizing its nonunion employees.
Wolf Run has so far advanced no evidence to suggest such abuse has occurred or is likely to occur, and remedies are available if it does, Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote for the appeals court. While it may be a reason to subject the UMWA to greater scrutiny in its performance of its role as a miners' representative under the Mine Act, we do not decide at this preview of the merits that the UMWA's status as a labor organization seeking to organize Sago Mine precludes the UMWA from performing as a miners' representative.
The explosion on Jan. 2 at Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va., seriously injured one miner and killed 12.
The Mine Act authorizes the Secretary of Labor, in this case using the Mine Safety and Health Administration as a representative, to inspect the mine and investigate the cause of the explosion.
A representative of the miners, defined as any person or organization that represents two or more miners, and a representative of the mine operator may participate in the investigation.
Nearly all Sago Mine miners, 92 out of 97, chose their co- workers to represent them.
On Jan. 25, Wolf Run agreed to permit Mine Safety Administration officials and the Sago miners who had been designated as employee representatives on its premises to conduct an investigation but declined to allow union officials to enter.
The Mine Safety Administration suspended the investigation and filed a request for a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and permanent injunction, asking the court to order Wolf Run to permit union representatives access to the mine.
After receiving supplemental briefs, the federal court in Elkins, W.Va., said it was adjudicating a request for a temporary restraining order. The court decided to issue a preliminary injunction in favor of the Mine Safety Administration and the Mine Workers.
Wolf Run appealed, and the 4th Circuit affirmed.
The mine operator contended that it had not received proper notice under a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure for the court to issue a preliminary injunction, and the court should have only considered the request for a temporary restraining order.
In addition to noting that in the lower court Wolf Run never complained that it did not have enough notice to adequately present its position, Niemeyer wrote that proper notice was given.
The Secretary of Labor's filing was captioned 'Application for Temporary Restraining Order and Complaint for Preliminary and Permanent Injunction,' and the prayer for relief requested both a TRO and a preliminary and permanent injunction - all of which notified Wolf Run that a preliminary injunction was on the table, Niemeyer wrote.
Wolf Run also argued that the anonymous designations violated procedures specified in the Mine Act and denied it the ability to verify for itself that the UMWA is properly designated and remains so designated throughout the investigation, according to the opinion.
The 4th Circuit found it unnecessary to address that question at this point.
Whether the formalities of designation have been complied with does not for now deny the miners the benefit of designation, Niemeyer wrote, although such a question could well become material as the litigation progresses.