Wednesday, August 26, 2015

OSHA’s new burden of proof is a big burden for employers


Today, I’m going to talk about burdens of proof, a topic that might seem dry, but is vitally important to employers.

Last month I provided some insight into the 22 different federal statutes that protect whistleblowing employees from retaliation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration administers the enforcement of each of these statutes’ anti-retaliation provisions. It’s now a whole lot easier for OSHA to enforce these laws against companies alleged of retaliation.

Earlier this year, OSHA published a memorandum entitled, Clarification of the Investigative Standard for OSHA Whistleblower Investigations. This “clarification” is actually a loosening of OSHA’s investigatory standard. Now, all OSHA needs to pursue a retaliation claim against an employer is “reasonable cause to believe that a violation occurred.”

What does “reasonable cause” mean? It means that all OSHA needs to take a whistleblower claim to hearing is a “belief that a reasonable judge could rule in favor of the complainant … that a violation occurred.” This “reasonable cause” finding requires significantly less evidence as would be required at trial to establish unlawful retaliation by the requisite preponderance of the evidence.

If you think of these burdens of proof as scales, the preponderance of the evidence necessary to carry the day at trial is sufficient evidence to tip the scale past the 50/50 mark. OSHA’s new “reasonable cause” standard, however, requires much less than this 50-percent-plus showing, maybe as little as enough to merely nudge the scales in the direction of that halfway point.

As OSHA’s summarizes:

Although OSHA will need to make some credibility determinations to evaluate whether a reasonable judge could find in the complainant’s favor, OSHA does not necessarily need to resolve all possible conflicts in the evidence or make conclusive credibility determinations to find reasonable cause to believe that a violation occurred. Rather, when OSHA believes, after considering all of the evidence gathered during the investigation, that the complainant could succeed in proving a violation, it is appropriate to issue a merit finding under the statutes that provide for litigation before an ALJ….

Needless to say, this loosening of the proof standard has the potential to be significant. Time will tell if if it will increase the number of whistleblower complaints filed by employees. I am confident, however, that under this new standard, employers will be facing more hearings and trials on federal whistleblower claims, and, further, that the stakes in this litigation has increased significantly.

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