Workers at an Amazon’s facility in New York sued Amazon in federal district court, alleging that the company violated New York state law by failing to provide a safe and healthy workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a motion to dismiss the case, Amazon argued, among other things, that the court should dismiss the nuisance and state labor-law claims under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction, until the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined appropriate workplace safety standards during the pandemic. The district court granted Amazon’s motion and dismissed the claims without prejudice, and the plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, Public Citizen filed an amicus brief on behalf of 11 law professors, explaining that the doctrine of primary jurisdiction does not apply to the workers’ state-law claims. Primary jurisdiction is a narrow doctrine under which a federal court abstains from deciding a case when the issues it raises fall under the special competence of a federal regulatory agency. Here, the brief explains, OSHA has refrained from weighing in on the workplace safety issues in the case arising under state law. In a decision issued in October 2022, the Second Circuit agreed. Although it ruled for Amazon on some issues, the court held that the primary jurisdiction doctrine did not apply, because the issues in the case—whether Amazon created a public nuisance and whether Amazon has breached its duty owed to Plaintiffs under NYLL § 200—turn on questions of state tort law that are within the conventional experience of judges and do not require the kind of highly factual inquiry that would typically be aided by OSHA’s expertise.