By Timothy D. Backstrom
On May 30, 2018, two complaints were filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Both of these suits concern a decision by EPA to defer publication of a notice of availability (NOA) of training materials prepared pursuant to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS), 40 C.F.R. Part 170. The WPS was originally promulgated in 1974, substantially amended in 1992, and then revised again in 2015. Although the 2015 revisions to the WPS are currently in effect, employers are not required to adopt new training programs for agricultural workers and handlers until 180 days after EPA publishes the NOA announcing the availability of the new training materials in the Federal Register.
On December 21, 2017, EPA issued a Federal Register notice indicating that it “expects to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in FY 2018 to solicit public input on proposed revisions to the WPS requirements for minimum age, designated representative, and application exclusion zones.” In this 2017 notice, EPA acknowledged that the WPS provisions it will propose to revise are already in effect and that training materials consistent with the 2015 rule have already been prepared, but stated that EPA does not expect to issue the NOA for these new training materials until after it completes a rulemaking concerning the proposed revisions to the 2015 WPS rule. The plaintiffs in both of the new district court cases are challenging the decision of EPA to defer issuance of the NOA, which has delayed the timetable for expanded training for agricultural workers and handlers contemplated by the 2015 WPS rule.
The first of two complaints was filed by Rural & Migrant Ministry, et al. (RAM) v. EPA, Case No. 1:18-cv-04743. RAM’s complaint includes four causes of action based on EPA’s failure to issue the NOA. RAM alleges that this failure is “arbitrary and capricious,” constitutes “agency action unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed,” and violates the publication requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Federal Register Act. RAM requests a declaratory judgment that EPA has violated the APA and the Federal Register Act, and injunctive relief to require immediate publication of the NOA.
The second complaint was filed by the States of New York, California, and Maryland, New York v. Pruitt, Case No. 1:18-cv-04739. These State plaintiffs also contend that EPA’s failure to publish the NOA is “arbitrary and capricious,” and constitutes “action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed.” Like RAM, the State plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment and an injunction requiring that EPA immediately publish the NOA for the expanded training materials. EPA will presumably seek consolidation of the two cases, which both challenge the same EPA actions and seek comparable relief.
The principal question presented by these two WPS cases is whether EPA can lawfully defer full implementation of the expanded training required by the 2015 WPS while it undertakes and completes a new rulemaking to revise certain provisions of the same rule. Although EPA acknowledges that it has prepared the written materials needed to effectuate the expanded training required by the 2015 WPS, EPA will likely argue that it is both more efficient and less confusing for employers and workers to use the existing training materials until after EPA has finished revising the WPS. In contrast, the plaintiffs in these two cases will argue that the 2015 WPS is already in effect, and that the protection for workers associated with the expanded training required by this rule has been improperly delayed by EPA without any prior notice and comment rulemaking.
The decision by EPA to defer full implementation of the 2015 WPS while EPA considers potential revisions to the WPS may be deemed analogous in some respects to other EPA actions that delayed the effective date for a rule expanding requirements for certified applicators who apply restricted use pesticides (RUP). In a decision issued by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on March 21, 2018, the court vacated several EPA actions that had delayed the effective date for the RUP rule, holding that EPA was required to provide notice and opportunity for comment before taking such actions and that EPA lacked “good cause” for acting without notice and comment. See Order Granting Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment, Pineros Y Campesinos Unidoa Del Noroeste v. Pruitt, Case No. 17-cv-03434-JSW.
The current cases may be distinguished from the actions EPA took to defer the effective date for the RUP rule because EPA has declined to take affirmative action to effectuate certain requirements in the 2015 WPS, rather than deferring the effective date for any of the requirements in that rule. It remains to be seen whether the district court will consider this procedural distinction to warrant a different outcome.
More information on WPS issues is available on our blog under key words Worker Protection Standard, delay, guidance, and training.