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Fernandez v. Tyson Foods, Inc.

Oscar Fernandez was exposed to the coronavirus at the Iowa meatpacking facility where he worked, and he died a few weeks later.  His survivors later filed a suit in Iowa state court against the company that operated the plant, claiming that it violated Iowa tort law. The defendant removed the action to federal court, claiming that the company was acting “at the direction of a federal officer.”

Public Citizen filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff’s motion to remand the action to state court. The brief explained that neither the Defense Production Act nor an executive order issued by President Trump “directed” the company to do anything, and that neither the Defense Production Act nor the executive order preempted the plaintiff’s state-law claims. In December 2020, the district court granted the plaintiff’s motion and remanded the case to state court. The court held that Tyson was not acting as a “federal officer” in operating its meatpacking plants. It also held neither the Federal Meat Inspection Act nor the Defense Production Act preempted plaintiffs’ state law claims.

Public Citizen represented Mr. Fernandez’s son in the defendants’ appeal of the remand order. The defendants moved for a stay of that order pending appeal, which the court of appeals granted. The appeal was then consolidated with the appeal in Buljic v. Tyson Foods. Representing the plaintiffs-appellees in both cases, we argued, among other things, that the district court correctly found that Tyson was not acting under the direction of a federal officer, because there was no evidence of delegation of federal authority or strict control of Tyson’s operations by any federal officer.

In December 2021, the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion unanimously affirming the district court, agreeing with our arguments that Tyson was not acting under any federal directives outside the ordinary regulatory regime at the relevant time, and that Tyson’s receipt of assistance from the federal government did not entitle it to remove Mr. Fernandez’s son’s claims to federal court. Tyson then filed a petition for rehearing en banc, which the court denied in February 2022. Stating that it intended to file a petition for certiorari, Tyson then filed a motion requesting that the Eighth Circuit stay its mandate; the Eighth Circuit denied that motion as well.

Tyson filed a petition seeking review in the Supreme Court, and we filed an opposition on behalf of the plaintiffs. The Court then denied the petition, confirming that the cases will proceed in state court.