A New York Labor Law claim alleging an unsafe workplace at an Amazon facility during the COVID-19 pandemic can proceed, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
A group of employees filed the lawsuit, which a lower court dismissed, accusing the retail giant of ignoring federal and state COVID-19 guidance at its New York facility known as JFK8.
The Second Circuit overturned the lower court’s decision on Oct. 18, 2022, finding that a lack of OSHA involvement in the case didn’t warrant dismissal.
District court: OSHA technical, policy expertise needed
In November 2020, the JFK8 employees filed a lawsuit against Amazon asserting:
- a breach of duty to protect the health and safety of employees under New York Labor Law
- causes of action under New York law for public nuisance, and
- failure to pay COVID-19 sick leave under New York’s COVID-19 sick leave law.
Amazon filed a petition to dismiss the complaint, which was granted by a district court. The district court found that the:
- questions before the court turned on factual issues requiring the technical and policy expertise of OSHA
- employees failed to allege the special injury required to state a claim for public nuisance
- New York Workers’ Compensation Law preempted suit for relief for past harm
- employees failed to allege a cognizable injury based on the threat of future harm, and
- COVID-19 leave payments aren’t “wages” as defined under New York law.
No ‘special injury’ for public nuisance claim
On appeal, the Second Circuit upheld dismissal of all but the Labor Law claim.
The appeals court found that the Labor Law and public nuisance claims “continue to present a live controversy because they are not based solely on since-rescinded guidance associated with the New York Forward Plan.”
However, the court found the public nuisance claim couldn’t proceed because even though the employees “plead a harm that is different in degree from the community at large, they fail to plead a harm that is different in kind, thereby failing to allege the special injury required to state a claim for public nuisance under New York law.”
Appeals court: OSHA not required to weigh in
But the appeals court found the Labor Law claim could proceed since OSHA’s expertise really wasn’t required because state tort law is within the conventional experience of judges.
While the appeals court acknowledged that it would be within OSHA’s competence to evaluate workplace health and safety standards, it said the issues involved in the case were “of a legal, not factual nature and do not require the kind of highly factual inquiry that would typically be aided by OSHA’s expertise.”
Further, “OSHA has not promulgated the kind of cross-industry COVID-19 workplace safety standards that might be applicable here.”