Suit Against Meat Processing Facility Dismissed, Sent to OSHA

On April 23, Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA), an advocacy group representing Missouri meat processing facility employees, filed a legal action against Smithfield Foods (Smithfield). RCWA alleged that Smithfield failed to follow Center for Disease Control guidelines for meat processing facilities remaining open during the COVID-19 pandemic. RCWA sought a declaratory judgment labeling Smithfield’s behavior, or lack thereof, a public nuisance under Missouri state law and a preliminary injunction forcing Smithfield to immediately abate said nuisance. However, the case was dismissed on May 5, when the judge noted that the concerns are best resolved by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

In a complaint filed in the Western District of Missouri, RCWA claimed that Smithfield encouraged the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic at the Milan, Mo. facility by (1) providing “insufficient personal protective equipment”, through its policy of disseminating a new face mask when another broke; (2) forcing workers to stand “shoulder to shoulder” in production and nonproduction areas; (3) refusing to “provide workers sufficient opportunities or time to wash their hands” or disinfect workstations; (4) discouraging “workers from taking sick leave when they [were] ill”; and (5) establishing “bonus payments” encouraging “workers to come into work sick.”

RCWA further asserted that Smithfield received notice of the above issues on April 2, yet said Smithfield failed to act as of April 20. Based on these assertions, RCWA requested that injunctive relief require Smithfield to (1) allow symptomatic employees to stay home without a positive COVID-19 test or doctor’s note; (2) provide tissues and clean face masks daily to all workers; (3) implement a social distancing plan that “will allow workers to stay 6 feet apart….including on the line”; (4) install additional hand-washing or disinfecting stations; (5) develop a contract tracing plan for symptomatic employees; (6) increase the length and frequency of breaks to encourage additional disinfecting and social distancing between workers in nonproduction areas; and (7) allow RCWA to conduct facility inspections using independent health experts. 

On April 27, Smithfield filed a motion to dismiss and an accompanying brief. On April 28, Smithfield filed a supplement to that motion after President Trump signed Executive Order 13917, which tasked the USDA with enforcing safety standards for meat processing facilities remaining open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Smithfield’s motion argued that RCWA’s legal claim should be dismissed because (1) Smithfield’s protective measures subsequent to the filing of RCWA’s claim rendered the preliminary injunction unnecessary and (2) Executive Order 13917 made judicial relief improper under the primary jurisdiction doctrine.

On May 5, the court dismissed RCWA’s case. In the opinion, the court held that under the primary jurisdiction doctrine, which gives courts authority to defer resolution of a legal claim made within a highly regulated area to the regulating agency in lieu of judicial intervention. Otherwise, the court concluded, the result would be court-mandated relief for one meat processing facility but not others due to a lack of personal jurisdiction. The doctrine mandated dismissal of the legal action to prevent “inconsistent regulations of businesses in the same industry.” Finally, the court notes that should OSHA fail to act, RCWA could compel action under Section 602(a) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which states that, via a writ of mandamus, the Secretary of Labor may be compelled to petition a federal court “to restrain any conditions or practices in any place of employment…which could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm.”