Smithfield Nixes Meat Plant Workers' Suit Over Virus Safety

By Mike LaSusa
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Law360 (May 5, 2020, 11:22 PM EDT) -- Smithfield Foods Inc. won dismissal Tuesday of a federal lawsuit accusing the meat processor of putting workers at a Missouri facility in harm's way during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a federal judge deciding that the plant workers' claims would be better handled by regulators.

U.S. District Judge Greg Kays ruled against the nonprofit workers group that brought the suit, the Rural Community Workers Alliance, saying the workers need to ask the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the virus protections at the hog plant in Milan, Missouri.

The workers' case hinges on whether Smithfield is complying with virus safety guidance put out by OSHA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Judge Kays said, reasoning that those regulators are in the best position to make a determination about compliance.

"If the court ruled on whether the plant is complying with the joint guidance, this ruling would be binding on Smithfield but not other meat-processing facilities because the court lacks personal jurisdiction over them," the judge said in Tuesday's opinion. "Thus, any determination by this court whether the plant is complying with the joint guidance could easily lead to inconsistent regulation of businesses in the same industry. And under these circumstances, where the guidelines are rapidly evolving, maintaining a uniform source for guidance and enforcement is crucial."

Judge Kays said that even if the court held on to the case, he wouldn't grant the workers' emergency bid for an order forcing Smithfield to make changes at the Milan plant aimed at further controlling the spread of the virus.

The workers allege in their April 23 suit that they are forced to work too closely to one another without proper protective gear, aren't given enough time to adequately wash their hands, and are dissuaded from taking time off when they are sick.

But Judge Kays said Smithfield has already taken steps to boost protections against the virus, such as temperature screenings, changes to meal and break policies to reduce crowding, and new sick leave policies. An order like the one requested by the workers could "deny Smithfield the flexibility needed to quickly alter workplace procedures to remain safe during the ever-changing circumstances of this pandemic," the judge said.

Additionally, the judge said the workers hadn't adequately spelled out exactly what changes they wanted to see from the meat processing company, though he did give the workers a chance to file a retooled suit.

There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 to date at the Milan plant, according to the opinion. Thirteen employees had been tested for the disease as of April 29, the order said.

Last week, Smithfield Foods urged Judge Kays to throw out the suit in light of President Donald Trump's recent executive order giving the U.S. secretary of agriculture authority over meat processors' operations.

But the workers responded that the company had "strenuously argued" the case couldn't be heard because OSHA had primary jurisdiction before it contended that jurisdiction belonged to the secretary of agriculture.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had repeatedly said that workplace safety wasn't reasonably related to the Federal Meat Inspection Service's food safety mission, according to the group. So the notion of deferring to its authority in that area was "absurd."

Attorney David Muraskin of Public Justice, which represented the workers, said in a statement Tuesday that there was a silver lining for his clients in the adverse ruling.

"Smithfield, and other companies across the country, are now on notice that the entire nation is watching their actions and insisting on fair treatment for their employees," he said.

One of the world's biggest meat-processing companies, Smithfield has had to shutter several of its plants in the United States recently due to COVID-19 outbreaks among the workers, according to the opinion.

Counsel for Smithfield did not respond on Tuesday to requests for comment.

The plaintiffs are represented by Gina Chiala of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, David Seligman and Juno Turner of Towards Justice and David S. Muraskin, Karla Gilbride and Stevie K. Glaberson of Public Justice.

Smithfield is represented by Jean Paul Bradshaw II and Mara Cohara of Lathrop GPM LLP and Alexandra B. Cunningham and Susan F. Wiltsie of Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP.

The case is Rural Community Workers Alliance et al. v. Smithfield Foods Inc. et al., case number 5:20-cv-06063, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

--Additional reporting by Danielle Nicole Smith. Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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