Kevin Ian Schmidt

OSHA and the loss of Chevron Deference

In a significant departure from precedent, the Supreme Court overturned the Chevron doctrine in a 6-3 decision. Established in 1984’s Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, the doctrine instructed courts to defer to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous laws. Chief Justice John Roberts’ 35-page opinion deemed the Chevron doctrine “fundamentally misguided” and rejected its application in future cases.

“Today, the court places a tombstone on Chevron no one can miss,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch, one of the court’s most conservative members.

By ending Chevron deference, the US Supreme Court has significantly reduced the power of federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The repercussions of this landmark decision will be felt across the federal government, but I am best qualified to talk on the impacts to OSHA. Let’s examine how we arrived to a place where OSHA and the EPA may be cutting protections.

What was the Supreme Court case about?

While “Chevron deference” might sound like a chess strategy, it refers to the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. In 1984, the court ruled that judges should defer to federal agencies when interpreting ambiguous parts of statutes.

The idea was that if Congress passed a law with unclear provisions or gaps, it was up to the agency to fill in those gaps. In practice, this allowed federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to create and implement rules without the fear of prolonged legal battles. OSHA letters of interpretation are a great example of this sort of clarification and decision making.

Then, in 2020, the case of herring fishermen emerged. That year, the Trump administration mandated that fishermen cover the costs of taking federal monitors on their fishing trips. The vessels had no choice; it was illegal to fish without these monitors on board to oversee the Atlantic fishery, spanning from Maine to North Carolina.

Commercial fishing companies, supported by conservative and corporate groups including billionaire Charles Koch, sued in two separate cases. In one case, a federal judge ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service could legally impose the costs under Chevron deference.

Impact on OSHA Letters of Interpretation:

With Chevron overturned it will have significant implications for OSHA’s letters of interpretation and agency interpretations more broadly This could reduce their effectiveness as a tool for clarifying regulatory requirements and providing compliance assistance. Let’s look at some of the other issues around the OSHA letters of interpretations:

  1. Reduced Judicial Deference:
    • Without Chevron deference, courts would no longer be required to defer to OSHA’s interpretations of ambiguous statutory provisions. Instead, courts would take on the responsibility of independently interpreting the statutory language. This change could lead to a variety of judicial conclusions that may differ significantly from OSHA’s established interpretations. Consequently, this new approach could create inconsistencies in how workplace safety regulations are applied and enforced, potentially leading to a more fragmented and unpredictable regulatory environment.
  2. Increased Legal Uncertainty:
    • If courts are no longer deferring to OSHA’s interpretations, there could be increased variability in the application and enforcement of OSHA standards. This shift in judicial approach could result in differing interpretations of the same regulatory provisions across various jurisdictions. Consequently, employers and employees may face significant legal uncertainty as they attempt to understand and comply with OSHA regulations. Without consistent guidance from the courts, it may become more challenging to determine the correct course of action to ensure compliance with workplace safety standards, potentially leading to a patchwork of interpretations and enforcement practices that vary from one court to another.
  3. More Frequent Legal Challenges:
    • Employers and other stakeholders might be more inclined to challenge OSHA’s interpretations in court, knowing that courts are no longer required to defer to OSHA’s expertise. This newfound judicial independence could embolden parties to dispute OSHA’s regulatory decisions more frequently, leading to a substantial increase in litigation. As a result, there is a greater likelihood of courts issuing rulings that overturn OSHA’s interpretations. This potential surge in legal challenges and subsequent court decisions could undermine OSHA’s regulatory authority and create an environment of uncertainty and inconsistency regarding the enforcement of workplace safety standards. The increased litigation might also strain judicial resources and prolong the resolution of disputes, further complicating compliance efforts for employers and leaving employees in a state of flux regarding their safety protections.

This shift introduces increased legal uncertainty for both employers and employees as they navigate the complexities of compliance without the previously clear guidance provided by OSHA’s interpretations. The likelihood of more frequent and prolonged litigation rises, as stakeholders may challenge OSHA’s decisions in court more readily, knowing that courts are no longer bound to defer to the agency’s interpretations.

Moreover, this decision signals a possible shift towards more detailed and prescriptive legislation from Congress. With agencies like OSHA facing limitations on their interpretive authority, there may be greater pressure on legislators to draft clearer, more specific laws to ensure that regulatory intentions are unambiguous and enforceable without the need for agency interpretation.

Overall, the removal of Chevron deference marks a significant change in the regulatory environment, potentially reshaping how workplace safety laws are created, interpreted, and enforced in the future.

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