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June 14, 2018

Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board continues analysis of the Environmental Rights Amendment

The PIOGA Press (by Kevin J. Garber and Jean M. Mosites) The Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board has issued several adjudications and opinions regarding challenges brought under Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA) since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation v. Commonwealth (PEDF) last June. PEDF set aside the long-standing three-part test in Payne v. Kassab used to analyze claims brought under the ERA and replaced it with a standard based on the text of the ERA and principles of Pennsylvania trust law. The PEDF decision addressed the allocation and use of royalties generated by leasing publicly owned oil and gas interests and did not provide a definitive test to be applied in the permitting context. The board has addressed the obligations imposed by the ERA in Friends of Lackawanna v. DEP and Keystone Sanitary Landfill, (FOL), Center for Coalfield Justice and Sierra Club v. DEP, (CCJ) and Center for Coalfield Justice and Sierra Club v. DEP. The most recent opinion, issued on May 11 in the Delaware Riverkeeper case, reflects a continuation of the analysis provided by these earlier decisions. Delaware Riverkeeper Network v. DEP In The Delaware Riverkeeper, et. al. v. DEP and R.E. Gas Development, LLC the board upheld well permits and renewals issued by the Department of Environmental Protection in an appeal based in part on the ERA. Two citizens groups, the Delaware Riverkeeper and the Clean Air Council, along with several residents of Middlesex Township (collectively, Delaware Riverkeeper), appealed unconventional gas well permits and subsequent renewals issued to R.E. Gas Development, LLC (Rex). Among other arguments, Delaware Riverkeeper argued that the department violated its constitutional obligations under the ERA. The department reviewed whether the permit applications complied with Act 13 and other relevant statutes and regulations, considered objections from a group of concerned citizens, Mars Parent Group, and held a Section 3251(a) conference with Mars…

June 13, 2018

Babst Calland Expands Mobility, Transport and Safety Practice
Former U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA Enforcement Division Chief Will Godfrey Joins Law Firm

Babst Calland announced the addition of William L. Godfrey as Director, Mobility, Automation and Safety. The Firm is expanding its capabilities to support the developing needs of companies with emerging technologies.  It provides strategic leadership with business and legal advice for manufacturers, suppliers, start-ups, technology companies and government entities in the full-spectrum of transportation regulatory, safety, product quality, and automation matters, including those related to automated/autonomous driving systems. “Will Godfrey’s expertise and creativity deepens our unique vision to deliver full-stack solutions to clients’ problems that integrate technical and engineering know-how with legal insight to expand business opportunities,” said Tim Goodman, Chair of Babst Calland’s Mobility, Transport and Safety Group, and former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Assistant Chief Counsel for Enforcement and Federal Senior Executive. A former General Motors vehicle engineer, production manager and senior U.S. federal regulatory chief at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)/U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Will Godfrey will assist clients in achieving their business goals and navigating obstacles by applying a current and detailed understanding of the federal government’s approach to transportation safety regulation (particularly motor vehicles), including its programs, processes, and personnel. Godfrey spent nearly a decade at NHTSA/DOT, where he served in various leadership capacities.  Among other things, as NHTSA’s Trends and Analysis Division Chief, he led the oversight, analysis, and investigation of more than 1,100 vehicle, equipment, tire, motorcycle, and child car seat manufacturers globally, including TREAD Act/Early Warning Reporting Program and the integration of new, data-driven techniques.  As a senior policy advisor to the NHTSA Administrator, he led the agency’s comprehensive reorganization of the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation (ODI). “Will Godfrey is well-regarded and uniquely qualified to serve clients with emerging technologies as a senior technical and strategic advisor, integrated with our best in class legal and technical team,” said Donald…

GDPR Client Alert Part 1: What it is, What it Means in the U.S., and How U.S. Companies Should React

Alert (by Johanna H. Jochum and Kevin T. Wills) On May 25, 2018, the European Union General Data Protection Regulation No. 2016/679 (GDPR), which limits personal data processing, became effective and enforceable.  Unlike most EU regulations, portions of the GDPR are applicable to companies in third party countries—including companies in the United States. The extraterritorial ramifications of the GDPR are already apparent.  Many U.S.-based companies that generate revenue from processing large amounts of personal data have recently revised their privacy policies to comply with the GDPR requirements.  However, for companies with business models that do not center on personal data processing, the extent of the GDPR’s reach and application is less clear. 1. What is the GDPR? In the age of the internet, nearly everyone routinely shares personal data in everyday tasks. The purpose of the GDPR is to protect the “fundamental rights and freedoms” of people who share that personal data by limiting the extent a third party can process that personal data. The GDPR’s definitions of “personal data” and “processing” are broad enough that most online activities are captured. For example, “personal data” can be “any information” relating to an identifiable person, including a person who can be identified by a username or location ID. Generally speaking, no company may process personal data that is distributed during these everyday tasks at all unless the data falls into one of six broad exemption categories: (1) consent; (2) contractual obligations; (3) legal obligations; (4) protection of “vital interests”; (5) public interest; or (6) legitimate interests. The person or legal entity that directs the data processing, the “controller,” and in some situations, the person or legal entity that processes data on behalf of the…

June 7, 2018

High Court Rejects NLRB’s Position That Class Waivers Violate Federal Law

The Legal Intelligencer (by Sean R. Keegan) The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Epic Systems v. Lewis is a win for employers who have included or wish to include class action waivers in arbitration agreements that employees are required to sign as a condition of employment. On May 21, the Supreme Court rejected the existing position of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which had held that arbitration agreements waiving the right to pursue class or collective actions violated federal labor law. The Supreme Court overturned the NLRB and held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) requires such mandatory arbitration agreements to be enforced according to their terms. Following this decision, individual arbitration provisions may preclude employees from pursuing class or collective actions to resolve employment disputes. The Supreme Court held that Congress has instructed in the Federal Arbitration Act that arbitration agreements providing for individualized proceedings must be enforced, and neither the Federal Arbitration Act’s saving clause nor the National Labor Relations Act suggests otherwise. Prior to Epic Systems, the NLRB had interpreted Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act to encompass the right to bring a class or collective action, as it gives employees the right to organize, bargain collectively and engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection. Consequently, the NLRB’s position was that an employment agreement that required employees to resolve their workplace disputes (such as wage and hour and discrimination claims) by arbitration on an individual basis was an unfair labor practice under Section 8 of the National Labor Relations Act. Before the Epic Systems decision there was a split in the circuit courts. Some circuits agreed with the NLRB’s interpretation or thought themselves obliged to defer to it under Chevron, while others, including the Fifth Circuit, disagreed with the interpretation. To…

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Reverses Approval of Oil and Gas Well on Narrow Grounds

Energy Alert (by Blaine A. Lucas and Robert Max Junker) In Gorsline, Court Declines to Rule on Broader Issue of Compatibility With Uses in Residential and Agricultural Zoning Districts, but Suggests that Municipalities May Permit Unconventional Natural Gas Drilling in any and all Zoning Districts The Pennsylvania Supreme Court published its long-awaited opinion in Gorsline v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfield Township on June 1, 2018.  Although the majority reversed the Commonwealth Court’s decision affirming the granting of a conditional use for an unconventional natural gas well pad, it did so in a narrow holding, finding that Inflection Energy, LLC (Inflection) did not present enough evidence before the Fairfield Township (Township) Board of Supervisors (Board) establishing that its proposed unconventional gas well pad was similar to other uses allowed in the Township’s  Residential-Agricultural Zoning District (R-A District).  Unlike most zoning ordinances, the Township’s zoning ordinance did not specifically authorize oil and gas wells.  Instead, Inflection had relied upon a “savings clause,” which allowed uses “similar to” the other uses specifically allowed in the R-A District. Despite headlines and press releases touting the Gorsline decision as a wholesale rejection of oil and gas development in residential and agricultural zoning districts, its ruling was much more limited.  In fact, language in both the Gorsline majority and dissenting opinions largely rejects the post-Robinson Township assertion of many shale gas opponents that natural gas wells must be relegated to industrial zoning districts and are fundamentally incompatible with residential or agricultural zoning districts. Background Babst Calland’s overview of the Commonwealth Court’s September 14, 2015 decision can be found here.  For the Supreme Court, Justice Christine Donohue authored the majority opinion joined by Chief Justice Thomas J. Saylor, Justice David N. Wecht, and Justice Debra McCloskey Todd.  Justice Kevin M. Dougherty authored a dissenting opinion joined by Justice…

June 5, 2018

Second Circuit Affirms Gathering Agreements can be Rejected in Bankruptcy

Energy Alert (by David W. Ross, Mark A. Lindsay and Erica K. Dausch) On May 25, 2018, in In re: Sabine Oil & Gas Corporation, 2018 WL 2386902 (2d. Cir. May 25, 2018), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed that a bankrupt energy and production company could reject its gas gathering agreements with a midstream company under Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code because the gas gathering agreements did not create or involve an interest in real property. Background Sabine Oil & Gas Corporation (Sabine), an energy and production (E&P) company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2015 in the Southern District of New York.  Prior to its bankruptcy filing, Sabine entered into gathering agreements (the “Agreements”) with Nordheim Eagle Ford Gathering, LLC (Nordheim), whereby Sabine was required to “dedicate” all of the gas it produced in a designated area to Nordheim, which would then gather and treat the gas.  If Sabine could not deliver the minimum required amounts of gas to Nordheim, it was required to make significant deficiency payments. Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code permits a debtor to reject pre-petition executory contracts and unexpired leases that the debtor deems to be burdensome, thereby relieving the debtor of the obligation to perform moving forward.  Agreements that involve the conveyance or creation of interests in real property (other than unexpired leases) are generally not subject to rejection under Section 365. Sabine sought to reject the Agreements under Section 365 because Sabine deemed the terms of the Agreements, including the requirement to make significant deficiency payments, overly burdensome.  Nordheim argued that the “dedications” contained in the Agreements were “covenants that run with the land” and thereby constituted interests in real property that were not subject to rejection under Section 365. Because the Agreements were governed by Texas…

May 22, 2018

Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejects DEP’s ‘water-to-water’ theory of violations under the Clean Streams Law

The PIOGA Press (by Kevin Garber, Jean Mosites and Esther Mignanelli) In a case of first impression, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the Department of Environmental Protection’s untested legal theory that penalty liability under the Clean Streams Law continues as long as any constituents of a release remain in waters of the Commonwealth—days, months and years after the release has been stopped. On March 28, the Supreme Court held “he mere presence of a contaminant in a water of the Common – wealth or a part thereof does not establish a violation of Section 301, 307, or 401 of the Clean Streams Law, since movement of a contaminant into water is a predicate to violations.” EQT Prod. Co. v. Com., Dep’t of Envtl. Prot., 6 MAP 2017, slip op. at *37 (Pa. Mar. 28, 2018) (emphasis in original). In other words, a violation of these sections of the Clean Streams Law is based on the initial entry of pollutants into waters of the Commonwealth, not the presence or movement of constituents within such waters. The Supreme Court’s opinion provides necessary clarification concerning the scope of liability for penal – ties under the Clean Streams Law for all persons, entities, businesses and industries that are responsible for remediation, those who would redevelop brownfield properties for reuse under Act 2, as well as any property owner with an historic contamination in groundwater that it did not cause. The decision reaffirms that penalty liability is distinct from cleanup liability and recognizes that penalties are neither appropriate nor effective in altering the time that may be necessary for full remediation. The parallel proceedings between EQT and the department The court’s statutory construction stemmed from a controversy between EQT Production Company and DEP regarding the liability and penalties that could be imposed for  a release from an…

May 16, 2018

Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board’s Analysis of Oil and Gas Well Permitting and the Environmental Rights Amendment

Environmental Alert  (by Kevin J. Garber and Jean M. Mosites) On May 11, 2018, in The Delaware Riverkeeper, et. al. v. DEP and R.E. Gas Development, LLC., the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board issued an opinion upholding well permits and renewals issued by the Department of Environmental Protection in an appeal based in part on Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, commonly known as the Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA). EHB Dkt. No. 2014-142-B (consolidated with 2015-157-B) (May 11, 2018). The ERA provides: The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people. The Board previously addressed the ERA in Friends of Lackawanna v. DEP and Keystone Sanitary Landfill, EHB Dkt. No. 2015-063-L (November 10, 2017) (FOL) and Center for Coalfield Justice and Sierra Club v. DEP, EHB Dkt. No. 2014-072-B (August 15, 2017) (CCJ). In another matter involving the Center for Coalfield Justice and DEP permitting action with respect to proposed mining operations, the Board also analyzed the ERA in a decision denying a petition for supersedeas. Center for Coalfield Justice and Sierra Club v. DEP, EHB Dkt. No. 2018-028-R (April 24, 2018). All of these cases analyze Department permitting decisions in light of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s June 20, 2017 decision in Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation v. Commonwealth (PEDF), which established a standard of review based on the text of the ERA and Pennsylvania trust law principles. Factual Background In Delaware Riverkeeper, two citizens groups, the Delaware Riverkeeper and the Clean Air Council, along with several residents of Middlesex Township (collectively,…

April 23, 2018

Automated/Autonomous Driving Systems (ADS) Innovation Boot Camp for Automotive Product Liability Litigators

Attorney Tim Goodman will be presenting a pre-conference workshop “Automated/Autonomous Driving Systems (ADS) Innovation Boot Camp for Automotive Product Liability Litigators” at the American Conference Institute’s Automotive Product Liability Conference, July 18-20, 2018. Automotive experts forecast that within the next five years, we will be sharing the road with automated/autonomous vehicles on a daily basis. In theory, vehicular automation is intended to increase safety by eliminating the human error component that causes most accidents. However, in practice, the prospect of every OEM developing an autonomous vehicle does not come without concerns, especially relative to automotive product liability. Despite the intended consequences of autonomous vehicles, there are certain outcomes that are leaving members of the legal community scratching their heads. Join attorneys and technical specialists who are helping shape ADS policy in the mobility, transport and safety space. This workshop will provide insights into this technology, along with the legal and regulatory ramifications. Points of discussion, among other things, will include:
  • SAE levels of driving automation
  • ADS systems, sensors, connectivity, architecture and related issues
  • ADS and self-certification of applicable federal safety standards
  • Homologation and regulatory compliance challenges
  • Innovative mobility and safety approaches
  • Best practices and emerging trends
  • Recent legislative and regulatory developments
For more information about the conference and this pre-conference workshop, click here.

EPA’s ban on ‘unconventional’ wastewater discharges to POTWs

The PIOGA Press  (by Jean M. Mosites and Abigail F. Jones) On June 28, 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a rule entitled “Effluent Limitation Guidelines and Standards for the Oil and Gas Extraction Point Source Category,” which prohibits the discharge of unconventional wastewater to publicly owned treatment works (POTWs). The rule went into effect on August 29, 2016. The prohibition, now codified in 40 C.F.R. §§ 435.33 and 435.34, applies to “wastewater pollutants associated with production, field exploration, drilling, well completion or well treatment for unconventional oil and gas extraction.” The phrase “unconventional oil and gas extraction” (UOG) is defined in the rule to mean oil and natural gas produced from “a shale and/or tight formation (including, but not limited to, shale gas, shale oil, tight gas, tight oil).” Subsequently, the rule was challenged in court and has been remanded to EPA for review and possible revision. The legal challenge to the rule, described in detail below, relates to its applicability to Pennsylvania-defined “conventional” oil and gas operators. However, EPA’s administrative review of the rule could affect oil and gas wastewater disposal options for both conventional and unconventional operators in Pennsylvania. Implementation deadline extension In the preamble to the publication of the final rule, EPA stated that no operators subject to the rule were currently discharging to POTWs. Based on this understanding, the rule was to go into effect within 60 days of publication. Following promulgation of the rule, EPA received letters indicating that there were facilities likely discharging UOG wastewater to POTWs in Pennsylvania. As a result, EPA issued a final rule on December 7, 2016, to extend the implementation deadline for existing sources that were lawfully discharging wastewater to POTWs between April 17, 2015, and June 28, 2016. For such existing sources, the compliance date for the…

April 22, 2018

UNcathlon raises nearly $90,000 for Special Olympics

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (by Patricia Sheridan) The atmosphere was festive, the participants enthusiastic and the sun was shinning Sunday for the second annual UNcathlon at the Oval Sportsplex in Schenley Park. The competitive event for athletes with intellectual disabilities supports and is presented by the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania. For the full article, click here.

April 16, 2018

Historic Preservation Through Land Use Controls: What is it? How Does It Work?

The Legal Intelligencer (by Blaine Lucas and Alyssa Golfieri) Preservation of the commonwealth’s historically significant natural, scenic, cultural, and architectural features and resources is a rising priority among local municipalities—and for good reason. Historic preservation not only helps cultivate an aesthetically pleasing environment for residents and business owners to live, work, and play, but it can increase property values, generate new tourism/economic development opportunities, and encourage future development with high-quality site design and architectural patterns. Municipalities are vested with several options when it comes to historic preservation. The two most common are the utilization of their authority under the Pennsylvania Historic District Act, 53 P.S. Section 8001 et seq., (Historic District Act) and the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, 53 P.S. Section 10101 et seq., (MPC). The Historic District Act was enacted in 1961 and confers upon counties, third class cities—First and second class cities (i.e., Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) are expressly excluded from the Historic District Act’s grant of authority—boroughs, incorporated towns, and townships the authority to designate historic districts within their geographical limits. In order to create a historic district, a municipality must do two things. First, it must adopt an ordinance. While the Historic District Act does not command in great detail what content or subject matters the ordinance must cover, it should, at a minimum, express the municipality’s intent to create a historic district pursuant to the Historic District Act, delineate the historic district’s boundaries, establish a historical architectural review board (HARB), enumerate the powers and duties of the HARB, and set forth guidelines and the approval process applicable to the issuance of a certificate of appropriateness (COA). Next, the municipality must provide the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission written notice of the ordinance’s enactment.  The commission must then certify, by resolution, to the district’s historical significance. Only after such certification does…

Fourth Circuit’s “Conduit Theory” Decision Extends CWA Liability for Migrating Groundwater Contamination

Environmental Alert (by Lisa M. Bruderly and Gary E. Steinbauer) On April 12, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Upstate Forever v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P., No 17-1640, held that the Clean Water Act (CWA) regulates point source discharges that reach “navigable waters” through groundwater with a “direct hydrologic connection” to the surface water. With this decision, the Fourth Circuit (which includes Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia) has joined the Ninth Circuit in recognizing the so-called groundwater “conduit theory” of liability under the CWA, a theory environmental groups are relying upon in several CWA citizen suits across the country. Under the groundwater “conduit theory,” separately regulated and permitted wastewater collection basins, impoundments, wells, and/or pipelines that result in groundwater contamination could be the targets for CWA liability, even though it is widely accepted that the CWA does not regulate discharges to groundwater itself. These cases have broad implications for many industries, including steelmaking, pipelines, mining, chemical manufacturing, oil and gas development, and utilities. Background and District Court Decision The Upstate Forever case dates back to 2016, when two environmental organizations filed a lawsuit alleging CWA violations stemming from a 2014 pipeline leak. According to the complaint, 369,000 gallons of petroleum products leaked from an underground pipeline. The plaintiffs alleged that the pipeline contents seeped into groundwater and later into two nearby creeks and their adjacent wetlands downgradient from the leak. The leak was fixed within a few days of discovery and approximately 209,000 gallons of petroleum products were recovered through remediation efforts overseen by a state environmental regulatory agency. The plaintiffs, however, alleged that a plume of petroleum contaminants continued to migrate from groundwater to surface water several years after the leak was fixed. The district court dismissed the case after finding…

April 9, 2018

Taking “Yes” for an Answer; Court Dismisses NPDES Permit Challenge as Non-Justiciable Following Elimination of Problematic Effluent Limit

Environmental Legal Perspective  (by Christopher B. (Kip) Power) In a decision with potential ramifications for challengers of many different types of environmental permits and approvals, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia (the “Court”) recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Sanitary Board of the City of Charleston (the “CSB”) seeking to overturn a decision of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding the permissible concentrations of copper in discharges from the CSB’s wastewater treatment plant to the Kanawha River. Sanitary Board of the City of Charleston, West Virginia v. Scott Pruitt, et al., Civil Action No. 2:16-cv-03060 (March 29, 2018 Memorandum Opinion and Order) (Goodwin, J.). After two years of litigation (and more than four years of administrative proceedings prior to that), the Court determined that the decision of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) to omit any limit on discharges of copper in the CSB’s most recent National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit rendered the CSB’s challenge to EPA’s action “either hypothetical or imminence.” As a result, the Court ruled there was no longer a justiciable “case or controversy” between the parties, depriving it of subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute. The case centered on the WVDEP’s promulgation of statewide limits on allowable levels of copper in streams, acting pursuant to its delegated authority under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). Using the general formula provided in its rules, the WVDEP translated these in-stream standards into specific effluent limits for copper when it issued a NPDES permit to the CSB in 2012. Recognizing that it could not operate in compliance with the assigned copper effluent limits, the CSB developed the necessary factual information and scientific rationale to support development of an alternative, facility-specific water quality standard (using a procedure known as…

March 28, 2018

Legal Issues Impact Appalachian Gas

The American Oil & Gas Reporter (by Kevin Garber, Blaine Lucas, Keith J. Coyle, and Jay Hammond) PITTSBURGH, PA.–Driven by demand growth in the industrial and electric generation sectors as well as expanding pipeline and liquefied natural gas export volumes, U.S. natural gas consumption is expected to reach record levels this year. However, production also is forecast to soar to new heights, partly as a result of increasing associated gas production in tight oil resource plays. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration projections, dry natural gas production will increase by 6.7 billion cubic feet a day in 2018, outpacing estimated year over-year demand growth. Expecting surging supplies to likely translate into relatively low dry natural gas prices for some time, Appalachian Basin natural gas producers continue to work to reduce costs and improve efficiency, while taking advantage of attractive opportunities. From a business perspective, oil field services remain a primary point of focus for Marcellus and Utica operators in their efforts to reduce costs and improve efficiency, with service providers delivering innovative products to make more productive wells at a lower cost per unit of production. Furthermore, shale gas producers remain focused on consolidating their activities geographically, including selling noncore assets to smaller (often largely debt-financed) operators looking for particular assets less attractive to larger operators (including shallow oil and, in certain circumstances, liquids from shale). Consolidation continues apace in the shallow conventional natural gas production industry as well. Apart from joint ventures, acreage swaps and other traditional transactions, shale gas producers in the Appalachian region also are pursuing more novel operational strategies to reduce costs and increase profits despite relatively steady natural gas prices. These strategies include new makeup water delivery systems, pad sharing, colocation of facilities, and other efforts to reduce duplication of operational outlay. At the same time,…

March 27, 2018

Employers fight to keep up with employment law changes

PA Business Central  Family leave, sexual harassment, sexual orientation discrimination, overtime salary threshold and duties tests, employer health care insurance and related tax reporting requirements, mandatory drug testing, executive compensation, disability benefits claims procedure, contraceptive coverage, legal marijuana use, the proper classification of workers as independent contractors or employees, salaried or hourly, paid or unpaid interns: all are among the labor and employment issues that employers have long been grappling with. Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity The latest change in employment law came on March 7 when The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, held that discrimination against transgender/LBGTQ employees is discrimination based on sex, and therefore, it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court held the opinion in the case EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. of Detroit, Michigan. When the plaintiff, Aimee Stephens, began working as a funeral director, he presented himself as a male and was named Anthony Stephens. Stephens was fired after she informed the funeral home that she would no longer be presenting as a male but would transition and dress as a female. The funeral home argued that Stephens’ continued employment would negatively impact its business clients, and the change in sexual orientation violated the Christian values of the funeral home’s owner. The three-judge panel concluded that the funeral home could not use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to justify such discrimination, and decided in favor of Stephens. Two weeks earlier, in a 10-3 decision, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in NYC, whose territory covers Connecticut, New York and Vermont, ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covered sexual orientation discrimination. In its case, Zarde v. Altitude Express, the plaintiff sued his former…

March 26, 2018

PHMSA Eyes Progress in Pipeline Safety Rulemaking Proceedings

Pipeline & Gas Journal  (by Keith Coyle) Having recently filled the two most important political appointments at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the Trump administration appears ready to take further action on two rulemaking proceedings that could reshape the nation’s federal safety standards for hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines. Howard R. Elliott was recently sworn in as PHMSA’s administrator. Elliot brings more than four decades of experience in the freight rail industry to his new leadership position, including expertise in the areas of hazardous material safety and security. He previously received the Association of American Railroads (AAR) Holden-Proefrock Award for lifetime achievement for hazardous materials safety, served on AAR’s Risk Management Working Committee and Security Committee, and is a member of the American Society of Industrial Security and the FBI-DHS Domestic Security Alliance Council. Administrator Elliot’s background and experience suggests that he is well-positioned to lead PHMSA, the federal agency responsible for ensuring the safe transportation of energy products by truck, rail, vessel or pipeline. The same can be said of Elliot’s new deputy, Drue Pearce, who became PHMSA’s newly appointed deputy administrator. Pearce previously served as the federal coordinator for Alaskan Natural Gas Transportation Projects and as an official in the Department of Interior during the George W. Bush administration. She also served as a member of PHMSA’s Technical Pipeline Safety Standards Committee, the federal advisory committee that reviews PHMSA’s proposed pipeline safety regulations, and as a member of the Alaska House of Representatives and Alaska State Senate. Pearce’s prior public service and familiarity with the pipeline industry leaves her well-prepared to assume a significant role at PHMSA, particularly on pipeline safety matters. As the core of the agency’s new leadership team, Elliot and Pearce will play an important part in deciding the fate of two…

March 22, 2018

Thoughts on the Tax Code’s New ‘Harvey Weinstein Rule’

The Legal Intelligencer (by John McCreary) The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 inserted a new subsection (q) into Section 162 of the Internal Revenue Code which denies deductions for payments made in settlements of sexual harassment or sexual abuse cases, and “related” attorney fees, when those settlements are subject to a confidentiality agreement: “(q) Payments related to sexual harassment and sexual abuse. No deduction shall be allowed under this chapter for:
  • Any settlement or payment related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse if such a settlement or payment is subject to a nondisclosure agreement, or
  • Attorney fees related to such a settlement or payment.”
This provision was added by amendment in the Senate and accepted by the House in the final enactment. The Conference Committee Report (the report) on the amendment does not disclose the rationale for the change, but it is safe to infer that it was inspired by the sordid revelations about widespread sexual harassment that were making headlines when it was passed on Dec. 20, 2017. See, e.g.https://www.ajc.com/news/world/from-weinstein-lauer-timeline-2017-sexual-harassment-scandals/qBKJmUSZRJqgOzeB9yN2JK/ (published on Dec. 19, 2017). The report contains no interpretive guidance on the meaning of “related to” as used in the statute, nor does it define what is meant by a “nondisclosure agreement.” The report simply notes that while Section 162 generally allows for the deduction of “ordinary and necessary” business expenses, various subsections disallow deductions for certain payments, such as portions of damages awarded under antitrust laws, illegal bribes or kickbacks, and criminal fines. In reaction to the headlines Congress has concluded that confidential payments resolving sexual harassment claims can no longer be considered “ordinary and necessary.” As with many efforts by Congress to provide quick fixes to perceived problems, the unintended consequences of this quick fix will likely create more uncertainty and controversy than will be resolved. A…

March 13, 2018

Developments to watch: Shale Appalachian Basin

The PIOGA Press (by Kevin Garber, Blaine Lucas, Keith Coyle, and Jay Hammond) Driven by demand growth in the industrial and electric generation sectors as well as expanding pipeline and liquefied natural gas export volumes, U.S. natural gas consumption is expected to reach record levels this year. However, production also is forecast to soar to new heights, partly as a result of increasing associated natural gas production in tight oil resource plays. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration projections, dry natural gas production will increase by 6.7 Bcf a day in 2018, outpacing estimated year-over-year demand growth. Expecting surging supplies to likely translate into relatively low dry natural gas prices for some time, Appalachian Basin natural gas producers continue to work to reduce costs and improve efficiency, while taking advantage of attractive opportunities. From a business perspective, oil field services remain a primary point of focus for Marcellus and Utica operators in their efforts to reduce costs and improve efficiency, with service providers delivering innovative products to make more productive wells at a lower cost per unit of production. Furthermore, shale gas producers remain focused on consolidating their activities geographically, including selling noncore assets to smaller (often largely debt-financed) operators looking for particular assets less attractive to larger operators (including shallow oil and, in certain circumstances, liquids from shale). Consolidation continues apace in the shallow conventional natural gas production industry as well. Apart from joint ventures, acreage swaps and other traditional transactions, shale gas producers in the Appalachian region are also pursuing more novel operational strategies to reduce costs and increase profits despite relatively steady natural gas prices. These strategies include new makeup water delivery systems, pad sharing, colocation of facilities and other efforts to reduce duplication of operational outlay. At the same time, there continue to be significant legal developments…

March 9, 2018

Wage Hour Division Announces PAID Program to Assist with FLSA Compliance

Employment and Labor Alert (by John A. McCreary, Stephen A. Antonelli, and Molly E. Meacham) On March 6, 2018, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor (WHD) announced a new pilot program, the Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program, which is intended to encourage employers to identify and correct potentially non-compliant practices. According to DOL’s Q&A page on the PAID program (https://www.dol.gov/whd/PAID/#4) “The PAID program provides a framework for proactive resolution of potential overtime and minimum wage violations under the FLSA. The program’s primary objectives are to resolve such claims expeditiously and without litigation, to improve employers’ compliance with overtime and minimum wage obligations, and to ensure that more employees receive the back wages they are owed—faster.” PAID will cover potential violations of the FLSA’s overtime and minimum wage requirements, including violations based on alleged “off-the-clock” work, failures to pay overtime at one-and-one-half times the regular rate of pay, or misclassification of employees as exempt from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements. Under the program, employers may self-audit their FLSA compliance, and where violations are discovered it must: i. specifically identify the potential violations, ii. identify which employees were affected, iii. identify the timeframes in which each employee was affected, and iv. calculate the amount of back wages the employer believes are owed to each employee. Once these calculations are concluded, the employer will contact WHD to discuss the issues for which it seeks resolution. Unless WHD denies the employer’s request to participate in the program at the outset (which could happen, for example, if the employer is already engaged in litigation over a challenged pay practice), WHD will then inform the employer of the manner in which the employer must submit required information, including the following: i. each of the calculations described above—accompanied by both evidence and explanation concerning…

March 6, 2018

The Clean Water Act goes underground: An Analysis and implications of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui

Trends (by Gary Steinbauer) On February 1, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court in Hawai’i Wildlife Fund v. County of Maui, No. 15-17447 (9th Cir.), held that the Clean Water Act (CWA or Act) regulates point source discharges that travel indirectly through groundwater to a jurisdictional surface water—that is, a navigable “water of the United States.” Maui is the first federal appellate court decision in a recent wave of citizen suits by environmental groups relying on the so-called “groundwater conduit” theory of CWA liability. The Fourth Circuit and Sixth Circuit are poised to weigh in next and, in the wake of the Maui decision, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened a 90-day public comment period on whether it should clarify or revise its own past statements on the theory and whether it is consistent with the text, structure, and purposes of the CWA. 83 Fed. Reg. 7126 (Feb. 20, 2018). Ninth Circuit requires National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for underground injection of wastewater In Maui, environmental groups sued the county alleging that it violated the CWA when treated sanitary effluent it injected into four permitted underground injection wells traveled some distance through groundwater to the Pacific Ocean. The results of a tracer dye test performed by EPA, as well as other federal and state agencies, showed that 84 days after the dye was injected into two of the county’s four wells, the dye emerged from submarine seeps along the ocean floor a half-mile away. The county’s treated sanitary wastewater reportedly represented one out of every seven gallons of groundwater that entered the ocean near the wastewater treatment plant. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision finding the county liable for an unauthorized discharge under the CWA. Although it disagreed with the district court and held…

February 23, 2018

Regulatory Reform Bills in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives

Environmental Alert (by Jean M. Mosites and Kevin J. Garber) Over the past several months, members of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives have introduced bills to address and eliminate regulatory inefficiencies and burdens that affect both individuals and businesses across the Commonwealth. The bills are part of a regulatory reform package included in the House State Government Committee’s Regulatory Overreach Report, released in mid-January, 2018 by committee chair Daryl Metcalfe (R, Butler). These bills, if enacted into law, would significantly change the way regulations are promulgated, revised and enforced in Pennsylvania. These state efforts complement recent federal executive and legislative actions on regulatory reform. Shortly after taking office, President Trump issued two regulatory reform executive orders: (1) Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs (E.O. 13771), also known as the two-for-one executive order, which requires agencies to propose two existing rules for repeal for each additional rule promulgated in and after fiscal year 2017; and (2) Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda (E.O. 13777), which requires federal agencies to designate a Regulatory Reform Officer charged with reviewing and making recommendations for the repeal, replacement, or modification of existing regulations. These executive orders address regulatory reform broadly and the long-term impact remains to be seen. There are several other examples where President Trump has issued executive orders targeting specific regulations or rules promulgated during the Obama administration. In early 2017, Congress used the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which generally authorizes Congress to repeal any rule within 60 calendar days after promulgation, to repeal 14 Obama-era rules, including changes to the stream protection rule under the Office of Surface Mining and to the Bureau of Land Management’s planning procedures. Once a rule is repealed using the CRA, the federal agency is prohibited from reissuing the rule or issuing a new rule “in substantially…

February 21, 2018

What’s Emerging in the Drinking Water?

The Voice  (by Alana E. Fortna) Contaminated water supplies are causing quite the stir and creating headlines in local newspapers across the country. The increased attention and scrutiny is due to the detection of unregulated substances that may pose a risk to human health or the environment, referred to as “emerging contaminants.” An “emerging contaminant” is a chemical or material characterized by a perceived, potential, or real threat to human health or the environment, or by a lack of a published health standard. Emerging contaminants do not have a federal maximum contaminant level for drinking water, surface water, or groundwater under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Maximum contaminant levels are one of the factors considered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when evaluating the appropriate remedial action at a contaminated groundwater site. Unless a state has promulgated a standard to address the particular emerging contaminant, water purveyors, companies performing remediation work, and environmental consultants can find themselves in a state of uncertainty regarding compliance for remediation projects. So how does the EPA address emerging contaminants? Currently, the EPA issues non-binding health advisories that are sometimes used as default cleanup levels when there are no binding standards (i.e., maximum contaminant levels). There are problems with this approach, such as a lack of collaboration with states and municipalities when prioritizing contaminants for health advisories, a lack of communication with water purveyors, and a lack of clarification regarding the difference between a health advisory and a maximum contaminant level. In addition to health advisories, emerging contaminants are often placed on the contaminant candidate list, which is a list of unregulated contaminants that mayrequire regulation under the SDWA. However, the presence of these contaminants in the environment may already be widespread, and the promulgation process can be lengthy, as the regulators try to…

February 15, 2018

Commonwealth Court Addresses Zoning of Short-Term Rentals

The Legal Intelligencer (by Krista-Ann M. Staley and Amie L. Courtney) Whether you are a property owner interested in offering a room as a short-term rental, a resident opposed to short-term rentals in your neighborhood, or a municipal official hearing from concerned residents of either opinion, you should be aware that unclear zoning regulations can cause significant roadblocks for all sides of the debate. Whether you are a property owner interested in offering a room as a short-term rental, a resident opposed to short-term rentals in your neighborhood, or a municipal official hearing from concerned residents of either opinion, you should be aware that unclear zoning regulations can cause significant roadblocks for all sides of the debate. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has addressed these roadblocks in several cases, recently adding Reihner v. City of Scranton Zoning Hearing Board, No. 256 C.D. 2017 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2017) to its growing line of cases involving the application of ambiguous zoning regulations to short-term residential rentals. The uptick in these cases reflects the increased popularity of the trend, expanded by online sites such as Air BnB, VRBO, and HomeAway that connect travelers with local residents or homeowners that want to rent rooms or residences for short-term stays. Reihner, along with its predecessors, originated with a notice of violation issued in response to neighbor complaints about the use of a single-family home, or portion thereof, as a short-term rental property. Critically, in each of these cases, the municipality had not amended its zoning ordinance to address short-term rentals. Rather, each municipality relied on existing regulations and terms as the basis for enforcement. In each case, the Commonwealth Court determined that the treatment of the newly popular rental activity was ambiguous under the existing applicable zoning regulations, and that Section 603 of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code…

February 7, 2018

The Clean Water Rule is delayed in response to U.S. Supreme Court decision

The PIOGA Press (by Lisa M. Bruderly and Gary E. Steinbauer) On February 6, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers published a final rule delaying implementation of the Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Water Rule (CWR)— a landmark rule revising the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) that arguably expanded the scope of the federal government’s authority under several regulatory programs, including those associated with wastewater discharges and dredge/fill activities under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The February 6 final rule delays implementation of the CWR until February 6, 2020. 83 Fed. Reg. 5200. The final rule delaying implementation of the CWR is a significant step in the Trump administration’s efforts to reconsider the Obama administration’s revised definition of WOTUS. Meanwhile, the pre-2015 WOTUS regulatory regime, which has been criticized by many as inefficient and inconsistent, remains in place. Supreme Court decision forced agencies to quickly delay applicability of CWR The agencies’ rule delaying implementation of the CWR was finalized less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense, et al., No. 16-299 (Jan. 22, 2018) (NAM), which started a countdown for the expiration of a nationwide judicial stay of the CWR. In NAM, the Supreme Court held that federal district courts, as opposed to federal appellate courts, were the appropriate forums for the legal challenges to the CWR. Once the Supreme Court’s decision takes effect, the nationwide stay of the CWR, imposed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in October 2015, will be lifted and more than a dozen federal district lawsuits challenging the CWR will be revived. After it was finalized in June 2015, more than 100 parties, including industry groups and 31 states, filed lawsuits challenging the CWR in both…