Eleventh Circuit Upholds OSHRC Decision and Imputes Supervisor’s Knowledge to Employer for Workplace Violations

The Eleventh Circuit considered an issue of first impression in Quinlan v. Secretary, No.–12347, 2016 WL 97602 (11th Cir. Jan. 8, 2016), upholding an Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) decision on workplace safety violations.  The issue of first impression is whether a court can impute to an employer a supervisor’s knowledge of a subordinate employee’s violation when the supervisor is himself simultaneously involved in the violation.  This issue was left open by the court’s decision in ComTran Group v. United States Dept. of Labor, 722 F.3d 1304 (11th Cir. 2013).

In Quinlan, an Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSHA”) Compliance Safety and Health Officer inspected a construction worksite at Dougherty High School.  The inspector observed two employees, a foreman and a subordinate, of the subcontractor Quinlan working on the edge of a 15-foot high wall without proper fall protection and with an unsecured ladder. The absence of proper fall protection and the unsecured ladder are both violations of OSHA regulations, and a Citation and Notification of Penalty was issued to Quinlan.

Prior to this case, the general rule in the Eleventh Circuit was that if a supervisor had actual or constructive knowledge of the employee’s violation, then that knowledge was imputed to the employer. There was an exception to this general rule when the supervisor is the one engaged in the violation. In that case, there must be actual or constructive knowledge on the part of the employer, because to allow otherwise would be to impermissibly relieve the Secretary of proving a prima facie case by showing the employer’s knowledge of the violation. Instead, merely showing the violation occurred, which is another element of the Secretary’s prima facie case, would also prove knowledge by the employer.

In Quinlan, however, the Eleventh Circuit held that when a supervisor and subordinate are simultaneously engaged in the violation then the general rule, and not the exception, should apply.  The court said, “[w]e see little difference in principle between the classic situation in which knowledge is imputed and the instant situation . . . [i]n both cases, the supervisor sees the violation by the subordinate, knows there is a violation, but disregards the safety rule for one reason or another.” Quinlan, 2016 WL 97602 at *7.  Furthermore, the court felt its holding justified because the Secretary was still required to show the supervisor had knowledge of the subordinate’s violation, thus eliminating the fairness concerns underpinning the exception.

Ultimately, this reasoning led the court to decide not to extend the exception to the general rule to encompass the situation where a supervisor and subordinate are simultaneously engaged in a safety regulation. Instead, the general rule will apply and the supervisor’s knowledge of the violation by the subordinate will be imputed to the employer.

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