Amazon Preemptively Sues N.Y. Attorney General to Ward Off Suit Over Company’s COVID-19 Handling

On Friday, Amazon preemptively filed a complaint in the Eastern District of New York against New York Attorney General Letitia James seeking relief from “the New York Attorney General’s unlawful attempts to subject Amazon — at its JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island and DBK1 delivery station in Queens — to state oversight activities governed by federal law and enforced by federal regulators.” Specifically, Amazon is attempting to preempt legal action from the New York attorney general (NYAG) over its handling of COVID-19 conditions, particularly at its JFK8 warehouse.

Previously, Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in March 2020 said they did not have the necessary equipment and were not notified when co-workers tested positive for COVID-19. Amazon fired several employees who protested the working conditions. One employee, who organized a march, was fired and later filed a discriminatory lawsuit against Amazon for the firing; Amazon claimed it was for violating social distancing guidelines not for his role in the protest and march. Meanwhile, NYAG Letitia James called the working conditions “so inadequate” and the firing “disgraceful”; she urged that National Labor Relations Board to investigate and five Senators wrote a letter to Amazon about the employee’s firing. However, at the time, Amazon maintained its position that workers were fired for violating safety guidelines, not protesting. In June Amazon was sued over warehouse COVID-19 deaths and Amazon faced a suit over poor working conditions in its warehouse during the pandemic. In October, another employee sued Amazon for wrongful termination by employee trying to enforce COVID-19 protocols.

Amazon contended that it “has been intensely focused on COVID-19 safety.” Amazon asserted that its “efforts far exceed what is required under the law, and, as discussed below, go well beyond measures that the Office of the New York Attorney General (‘OAG’) has deemed comprehensive.” Amazon stated that it “takes the health and safety of its employees extremely seriously, and it has taken appropriate steps to enforce its health and safety protocols for the protection of its entire workforce,” which Amazon purportedly did in regards to the aforementioned employees that it fired “who committed severe health and safety violations.” Amazon noted that JFK8 passed the sheriff’s office’s unannounced COVID-19 inspection in March, which allegedly found the workers’ complaints “baseless.” Amazon claimed it performs regular temperature checks, provides staggered shifts, as well as promoting social distancing in the warehouse.

According to the complaint, the NYAG’s office “has threatened to sue Amazon if it does not immediately agree to a list of demands, many of which have no connection to health and safety and have no factual or legal basis. … The OAG’s exorbitant demands are based on a standard for workplace health and safety far more stringent than the standard adopted by the OAG when defending, in other litigation, the New York State Courts’ reasonable but more limited safety response to COVID-19 in the face of threats greater than those present in Amazon’s private facilities.”

Amazon argued that it “cannot accept the OAG’s attempt to subject Amazon to an inconsistent and unfair standard for workplace safety that is preempted by federal law and assigned to the primary jurisdiction of federal regulators.” For example, Amazon proffered that the OAG has demanded that Amazon “‘disgorgement’ profits, subsidize public bus service, reduce its production and performance requirements” reinstate the specified fired employees, have a health and safety consultant, among other things. Moreover, Amazon averred that the OAG “lacked jurisdiction to regulate workplace health and safety and employees’ concerted activities.” Amazon added that the OAG “lacks the legal authority” to demand legal remedies, arguing that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has jurisdiction over workplace safety concerns under New York Law and that the National Labor Relations Board has the authority over the former employees’ claims.

In a statement to The Verge, AG James stated that Amazon’s lawsuit was “nothing more than a sad attempt to distract from the facts and shirk accountability for its failures to protect hardworking employees from a deadly virus.” AG James added that the OAG would  “not be intimidated by anyone, especially corporate bullies that put profits over the health and safety of working people.”

Amazon seeks a declaratory judgment that in this case “the state laws that the OAG seeks to enforce are preempted by federal law and an injunction against the OAG’s ongoing misuse of those laws against Amazon.” Amazon is represented by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.