Justia Energy, Oil & Gas Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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The Federal Mine Safety and Health Amendments Act, 30 U.S.C. 801, requires the Secretary of the Department of Labor, through the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), to negotiate mine-specific ventilation plans with companies that operate the mines. In 2006-2018, Knight Hawk Coal operated its Prairie Eagle Mine pursuant to an MSHA-approved ventilation plan that permitted perimeter mining with 40-foot perimeter cuts. In 2018, MSHA conducted a ventilation survey at Prairie Eagle and concluded that the approved plan did not adequately ventilate the perimeter cuts. MSHA relied primarily on the results of chemical smoke tests, which involved survey team members observing smoke movement from a 44-foot distance. Months later, MSHA revoked the Prairie Eagle ventilation plan. After receiving a technical citation from MSHA for operating without an approved plan, Knight Hawk sought review by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.The Commission’s ALJ found the revocation arbitrary and capricious, in part because the chemical smoke test results were unreliable and inconsistent and the Secretary ignored disagreements among MSHA ventilation survey team members regarding the results. The ALJ reinstated the previously-approved ventilation plan. The Commission affirmed, concluding that the Secretary failed to explain adequately why the existing ventilation plan was deficient. The D.C. Circuit denied the Secretary’s petition for review, finding that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding. View "Secretary of Labor v. Knight Hawk Coal, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of OGT in an action brought by the oil field construction company to quiet a pipeline title based on defendant's ineligibility to claim a lien under North Dakota Century Code 35-24-04. The court agreed with the district court that defendant was an employee, rather than an independent contractor, and that section 35-24-04 does not confer lien rights upon employees.In this case, the factors that indicated that defendant was an employee include, among other things, that defendant earned a weekly salary that OGT paid him regardless of the number of hours, amount of work, or number of projects he completed; defendant completed a W-4 to indicate his tax withholdings; OGT withheld and paid employment taxes on defendant's wages and reported his income to him and the IRS on a Form W-2; OGT offered defendant regular employment benefits; and he worked full-time for OGT and no one else. View "Oil & Gas Transfer LLC v. Karr" on Justia Law

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Dennis Woolman, former president of The Clemens Coal Company, challenged a district court’s determination that Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company didn’t breach a duty to him by failing to procure for Clemens Coal an insurance policy with a black-lung disease endorsement. Clemens Coal operated a surface coal mine until it filed for bankruptcy in 1997. Woolman served as Clemens Coal’s last president before it went bankrupt. Federal law required Clemens Coal to maintain worker’s compensation insurance with a special endorsement covering miners’ black-lung disease benefits. Woolman didn’t personally procure insurance for Clemens Coal but instead delegated that responsibility to an outside consultant. The policy the consultant ultimately purchased for the company did not contain a black-lung-claim endorsement, and it expressly excluded coverage for federal occupational disease claims, such as those arising under the Black Lung Benefits Act (the Act). In 2012, a former Clemens Coal employee, Clayton Spencer, filed a claim with the United States Department of Labor (DOL) against Clemens Coal for benefits under the Act. After some investigation, the DOL advised Woolman that Clemens Coal was uninsured for black-lung-benefits claims as of July 25, 1997 (the last date of Spencer’s employment) and that, without such coverage, Woolman, as Clemens Coal’s president, could be held personally liable. Woolman promptly tendered the claim to Liberty Mutual for a legal defense. Liberty Mutual responded with a reservation-of-rights letter, stating that it hadn’t yet determined coverage for Spencer’s claim but that it would provide a defense during its investigation. Then in a follow-up letter, Liberty Mutual clarified that it would defend Clemens Coal as a company (not Woolman personally) and advised Woolman to retain his own counsel. Liberty Mutual eventually concluded that the insurance policy didn’t cover the black-lung claim, and sued Clemens Coal and Woolman for a declaration to that effect. In his suit, Woolman also challenged the district court’s rejection of his argument that Liberty Mutual should have been estopped from denying black-lung-disease coverage, insisting that he relied on Liberty Mutual to provide such coverage. Having considered the totality of the circumstances, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court didn’t err in declining Woolman’s extraordinary request to expand the coverages in the Liberty Mutual policy. “Liberty Mutual never represented it would procure the coverage that Woolman now seeks, and the policy itself clearly excludes such coverage. No other compelling consideration justifies rewriting the agreement— twenty years later—to Woolman’s liking.” View "Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance v. Woolman" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant DTC Energy Group, Inc., sued two of its former employees, Adam Hirschfeld and Joseph Galban, as well as one of its industry competitors, Ally Consulting, LLC, for using DTC’s trade secrets to divert business from DTC to Ally. DTC moved for a preliminary injunction based on its claims for breach of contract, breach of the duty of loyalty, misappropriation of trade secrets, and unfair competition. The district court denied the motion, finding DTC had shown a probability of irreparable harm from Hirschfeld’s ongoing solicitation of DTC clients, but that DTC could not show the ongoing solicitation violated Hirschfeld’s employment agreement. After review, the Tenth Circuit determined the district court did not abuse its discretion when denying DTC's motion for a preliminary injunction, and affirmed. View "DTC Energy Group v. Hirschfeld" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against his former employer, Energy Northwest, alleging claims of retaliation in violation of the Energy Reorganization Act, 42 U.S.C. 5851. The whistleblower retaliation provision of the Act protects energy workers who report or otherwise act upon safety concerns. In this case, plaintiff's single expression of a difference of opinion about the “Charlie” designation of one existing internal condition report lacks a sufficient nexus to a concrete, ongoing safety concern. Therefore, the court concluded that the district court properly granted summary judgment for Energy Northwest because plaintiff's conduct falls outside the scope of the Act's protection. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Sanders v. Energy Northwest" on Justia Law

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Irish Oil & Gas, Inc. was an oil and gas exploration, production, and brokerage company. Border Resources, LLC provided landman services to clients, including acquiring leases, performing due diligence, and providing title curative work. This case involved Border's claim against Irish Oil for breach of contract for landman services Border provided to Irish Oil and Irish Oil's counterclaim against Border for breach of fiduciary duty in performing those services. Irish Oil appealed the judgment entered after a bench trial, that awarded Border damages and prejudgment interest and dismissed Irish Oil's counterclaim for breach of fiduciary duty. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the district court did not clearly err in finding Border did not breach its fiduciary duty while providing professional landman services to Irish Oil and in finding leases Border acquired for Irish Oil were sold for $1,100 per net mineral acre. Furthermore, the Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Irish Oil's motion to amend its counterclaim to add individual landmen as counterclaim defendants. View "Border Resources, LLC v. Irish Oil & Gas, Inc." on Justia Law

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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) led the effort to clean up nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington state. URS Energy & Construction, Inc. (“URS Energy”), a wholly-owned subsidiary of URS Corporation, worked as a subcontractor on the project. An employee of URS Energy brought this action alleging violations of the Energy Reorganization Act (“ERA”) whistleblower protection provision concerning the cleanup efforts. The district court dismissed the DOE from the suit and granted summary judgment in favor of URS Corp. and URS Energy. The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding (1) the DOE and URS Corp. were correctly dismissed for lack of administrative exhaustion, but administrative exhaustion was sufficient as to URS Energy; and (2) the employee introduced sufficient evidence to create a triable issue as to whether his whistleblowing activity was a contributing factor in the adverse employment action URS Energy took against him, and there were other existing genuine issues of fact that precluded summary judgment to URS Energy. Remanded. View "Tamosaitis v. URS Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against his employer (URS) and the DOE, alleging violations of the Energy Reorganization Act (ERA), 42 U.S.C. 5851(b)(4), whistleblower protection provision, and requested a jury trial. The district court partially dismissed the complaint, denied a jury trial, and granted summary judgment against plaintiff. The court held that before an employee may opt out of the agency process and bring a retaliation suit against a respondent in federal court, that respondent must have had notice of, and an opportunity to participate in, the agency action for one year. In this case, plaintiff's claim against DOE failed for lack of administrative exhaustion. The court concluded that the administrative exhaustion was sufficient as to URS E&C. The court affirmed the district court's dismissal of URS Corp. for lack of administrative exhaustion. The court also concluded that, since plaintiff has shown that his protected activity was a "contributing factor" in the adverse employment action he suffered, he has met his burden for establishing a prima facie case of retaliation under the ERA. Further, the evidence created a genuine issue of fact as to whether plaintiff's compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment were affected by his transfer. The court reversed the grant of summary judgment to URS E&C for ERA whistleblower retaliation. Finally, the court held that plaintiff has a constitutional right to a jury trial for his claims seeking money damages against URS E&C and the court reversed the district court's ruling. View "Tomosaitis v. URS Inc." on Justia Law

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Forester was awarded benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. 901-944, as amended by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 124 Stat. 119, after the ALJ determined that Forester’s five years of private coal mine employment with Navistar’s predecessor, combined with his16 years of employment as a mine inspector with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration , rendered him eligible for the rebuttable presumption that, having been employed for at least 15 years in underground coal mines, and having a totally disabling respiratory or pulmonary impairment, he was totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease. The Benefits Review Board upheld the award. The Sixth Circuit vacated, holding that a federal mine inspector is not a “miner” for purposes of the BLBA, and remanding for determination of whether Forester is entitled to an award of BLBA benefits without the benefit of the 15-year presumption. View "Navistar, Inc. v. Forester" on Justia Law

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Shamokin Filler, a coal preparation facility in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, has been regulated by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) since 1977. After a change in ownership in 2009, the new owners challenged MSHA’s jurisdiction, contending that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), not MSHA, should oversee it. Presumably the new owners wanted to avoid the more stringent requirements imposed by MSHA regulations and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, 30 U.S.C. 801. MSHA, rather than OSHA, has much stricter oversight requirements including regarding respirable coal dust standards. The Secretary of Labor and an Administrative Law Judge for the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission disagreed and concluded that Shamokin was engaged in the “work of preparing the coal,” as defined in the Mine Act. Shamokin argued that its plant does not engage in the “work of preparing the coal” because it makes its 100% coal products out of already processed coal. The Third Circuit rejected the argument and denied a petition for review. Shamokin’s interpretation of the statute lacked any basis in the text of the Mine Act. View "Shamokin Filler Co. Inc v. Fed. Mine Safety & Health Review Comm'n" on Justia Law