Appeals Court Holds That Six-Month Statute of Limitations Applies to OSHA Record-Keeping Violations

May 8, 2012

By: Michael D. Billok

In an extremely important decision for employers, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that an employer can only be cited by OSHA for up to six months following the occurrence of an error or omission in its injury and illness record-keeping logs.  In so holding, the Court restored the plain text of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (the "Act"), which provides that "no citation may be issued . . . after the expiration of six months following the occurrence of any violation."  OSHA regulations require employers to maintain their injury and illness logs for five years from the end of the calendar year that those records cover.  Relying on that regulation, OSHA had a longstanding practice of issuing citations up to five years following an alleged record-keeping violation.  For the first time, an appeals court held that this practice is contrary to the explicit statute of limitations contained in the Act.

The Court's decision was unanimous, and none of the judges thought very highly of OSHA's arguments to extend the statute of limitations to five years for record-keeping violations.  The Court stated that OSHA was "heroically attempt[ing]" to "tie this straightforward issue into a Gordian knot," and was "kick[ing] up" a "cloud of dust . . . in an effort to lead us to [the Secretary of Labor's] interpretation."

While employers may still be cited beyond the six-month statute of limitations if violations are continuing or ongoing, this decision will have a significant impact on OSHA's enforcement of employers' record-keeping obligations.  OSHA has 90 days from the date of the decision to file a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court if it wishes to appeal the Court's decision.