By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.
Although agreeing with the Department of Labor that it had authority to seek injunctive relief against a company that had sued a former employee for defamation and intentional interference with business relations, and that the district court had jurisdiction to consider that request, the Eleventh Circuit found the court was premature in granting the requested relief. In enjoining the employer from bringing suit against current and former employers based only on the fear that such suits would have a chilling effect on the DOL’s whistleblower investigation, the court failed to make a finding of baselessness or to conduct a preemption analysis. The district court's order was vacated and the matter remanded (Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor v. Lear Corporation EEDS and Interiors
, May 13, 2016, per curiam
Lear sued employee.
The dispute arose after Lear sued a former employee in state court for defamation and intentional interference with business relations. The DOL, in turn, moved for injunctive relief against the employer under OSHA's whistleblower protection provisions, alleging that Lear was unlawfully discriminating against employees in retaliation for raising health and safety concerns regarding its manufacturing plant. Based on the DOL’s motion, the district court enjoined Lear from suing any current or former employee. Lear filed an interlocutory appeal, challenging the district court's jurisdiction to grant the relief, as well as the merits of the injunction.
District court had jurisdiction.
Jurisdiction in the district court was premised on section 11(c) of the OSH Act, which prohibits discrimination against employees who exercise their rights under the chapter, including the right to file a complaint or institute a proceeding. That section also provides that employees may file a complaint with the Secretary of Labor, who would investigate as necessary and if the Secretary finds a violation, he may bring an action in district court, which "shall have jurisdiction, for cause shown to restrain violations of paragraph (1) of this subsection and order all appropriate relief including rehiring or reinstatement of the employee to his former position with back pay." A plain reading of that text, the court explained, supported the lower court's jurisdiction to enter a preliminary injunction. Both the words "restrain" and "order all appropriate relief" could be read to authorize such relief, and Congress's use of the word "including" indicated that the remedies of rehiring and reinstatement were not exclusive, "but rather two examples of permitted relief."
Labor Secretary had authority.
Moreover, the Act authorized the Secretary to bring an action in the district court when he determined that a violation had occurred, after "such investigation . . . as he deems appropriate." Here, the Secretary brought suit after he determined that Lear was "retaliating against employees through meritless litigation, intimidation, threats, suspensions and termination.” He found that the employer's actions were unlawfully retaliatory and intended to "chill" employees' cooperation and hamper DOL’s enforcement of the Act, and he requested relief to prohibit the employer from continuing that conduct. Based on the Secretary's arguments for injunctive relief, it was reasonable to believe that the Secretary had determined that an appropriate amount of investigation had been conducted and that unlawful retaliation was occurring. The Act did not require completion of that investigation and, "instead, the extent of the investigation is entirely discretionary," noted the appeals court.
Injunctive relief improperly analyzed.
Yet even though the Secretary had authority to request the relief and the court had jurisdiction to consider that request, entry of the injunction was improper. The lower court misapplied the law, and the appeals court was not required to accord it deference. The U.S. Supreme Court had identified prerequisites for enjoining lawsuits in Bill Johnson's Rest., Inc. v. NLRB
, a 1983 decision holding that before a court could enjoin litigation, it had to discern both a retaliatory motive and a lack of reasonable basis for the employer's suit. In the alternative, the court had to determine that the litigation was preempted. In this case, the district court based its decision on the potential for retaliation alone; it did not consider whether the employer's ongoing lawsuit against the employee was baseless and retaliatory (in lieu of that, it also failed to conduct a preemption analysis). Absent those determinations, it was improper for the court to preclude the employer from pursuing litigation against its current or former employees.
Declining to rewrite the injunction on behalf of the lower court, the appeals court vacated the injunction and remanded the matter to the district court.