Second Circuit Partially Affirms Amazon COIVD-19 Response Dismissal

On October 18, the Second Circuit partially affirmed the dismissal of a complaint filed in June 2020 by warehouse workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York. The workers brought suit against Amazon seeking declaratory, injunctive and monetary relief for Amazon’s alleged breaches of duties under New York law in connection Amazon’s response to COVID-19 at the facility. (Two causes of action in the amended complaint allege “ a statewide class action.”)

The district court dismissed the Amended Complaint, partly with prejudice and partly without prejudice. On remand, the district court will adjudicate Plaintiffs’ surviving claim for declaratory and injunctive relief.

The named plaintiffs are seven individuals, four of whom are Amazon employees and three of whom reside in the employees’ households. The two defendants are, Inc. and Services, LLC. (Amazon).

As the Second Circuit characterizes the claim, “Plaintiffs allege that Amazon deters workers from social distancing, washing hands, and disinfecting workstations.”  The amended complaint contains four causes of action: public nuisance; breach of New York Labor Law Section 200 (failure to protect health and safety of employees),  a count seeking both declaratory and injunctive relief; breach of New York Labor Law Section 191 (damages for failure to pay earned Covid sick leave in a timely fashion); and injunctive relief under Section 191 to prevent “future failures to pay earned COVID-19 sick leave on time…” The Second Circuit vacated the dismissal of the New York Labor Law Section 200 count insofar as the claim is for injunctive and remanded the case to the District Court.

A great deal of the Second Circuit’s analysis in its opinion is devoted to what it considered the district court’s flawed analysis of the doctrine of “primary jurisdiction,” pursuant to which a court may dismiss or stay a case pending agency action, in this case action by OSHA. The Second Circuit did not agree that the doctrine applied, and counsel addressing the primary jurisdiction issue even in factually dissimilar cases will find the court’s discussion invaluable.

The case was heard by a three judge panel. Judge Chin dissented on the issue of dismissal of the public nuisance claim. The two judges affirmed the dismissal by the trial court because they felt Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries did not differ in kind, but only in degree, from the public at large. Judge Chin did not agree with this analysis.

Amazon’s appellate counsel is Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. Plaintiffs’ appellate counsel are: Terrell Marshall Law Group LLC; Public Justice P.C.; Towards Justice; and Make the Road New York.