U.S. Supreme Court
Martin v. OSH Rev. Comm'n, 499 U.S. 144 (1991)
Martin v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission
Argued Nov. 27, 1990
Decided March 20, 1991
499 U.S. 144
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 assigns distinct regulatory tasks to two independent administrative actors: petitioner Secretary of Labor is charged with setting and enforcing workplace health and safety standards, and respondent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission is responsible for carrying out adjudicatory functions. The Act also requires a court of appeals reviewing a Commission order to treat as "conclusive" Commission findings of fact that are "supported by substantial evidence." In this case, having found that respondent CF & I Steel Corporation had equipped some of its employees with loose-fitting respirators that exposed them to impermissible coke oven emission levels, the Secretary issued a citation to CF & I and assessed a monetary penalty against it for violating a regulation promulgated by the Secretary requiring an employer to institute a respiratory protection program. The Commission vacated the citation, ruling that the facts did not establish a violation of that regulation, which was the sole asserted basis for liability, since the regulation expressly requires only that an employer train employees in the proper use of respirators, whereas another regulation expressly states the employer's obligation to assure a proper fit. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that where, as here, the relevant regulations are ambiguous, a reviewing court must defer to the Commission's reasonable interpretation rather than the Secretary's interpretation, since Congress intended to delegate to the Commission the normal complement of adjudicative powers possessed by traditional administrative agencies, including the power to "declare' the law." Concluding that the Commission's interpretation was a reasonable one, the court did not assess the reasonableness of the Secretary's competing view.
Held: A reviewing court should defer to the Secretary when the Secretary and the Commission furnish reasonable but conflicting interpretations of an ambiguous regulation promulgated by the Secretary under the Act. Pp. 499 U. S. 150-159.
(a) It must be inferred from the Act's unusual "split enforcement" structure and from its legislative history that the power to render authoritative interpretations of the Secretary's regulations is a necessary adjunct of the Secretary's rulemaking and enforcement powers. The chanroblesvirtualawlibrarychanroblesvirtualawlibrary
Secretary, as the promulgator of standards, is in a better position than the Commission to reconstruct the purpose of particular regulations. Moreover, since the Secretary, as enforcer, comes into contact with a much greater number of regulatory problems than does the Commission, the Secretary is more likely to develop the expertise relevant to assessing the effect of a particular regulatory interpretation. Furthermore, dividing the power to make and enforce standards from the power to make law by interpreting them would make two administrative actors ultimately responsible for implementing the Act's policy objectives, an outcome inconsistent with Congress' intent in combining legislative and enforcement powers in the Secretary. It must also be concluded that Congress did not intend to endow the Commission with the normal adjudicative powers possessed by a traditional, unitary agency. Such an agency permissibly uses adjudication to engage in lawmaking and policymaking only because it also has been delegated the power to make law and policy through rulemaking, and necessarily interprets regulations that it has promulgated. The more plausible inference is that the Commission was meant to have the type of nonpolicymaking adjudicatory powers typically exercised by a court in the agency-review context, such that the Commission is authorized to review the Secretary's interpretations only for consistency with the regulatory language and for reasonableness, and possesses no more power than is necessary to make authoritative findings of fact and to apply the Secretary's standards to those facts in making a decision. Although the Commission was established in response to concerns that combining rulemaking, enforcement, and adjudicatory power in the Secretary would leave employers unprotected from prosecutorial bias, such concerns are dispelled by the vesting of authoritative factfinding and review powers in a body wholly independent of the administrative enforcer; regulated parties are protected from biased interpretations when the Commission and ultimately the court of appeals review the Secretary's interpretation for reasonableness. Nor is such an interpretation, when furnished in the course of an administrative adjudication, a mere "litigating position" undeserving of judicial deference under this Court's precedents. Since such an interpretation is agency action, not a post hoc rationalization of it, and assumes a form expressly provided for by Congress when embodied in a citation, the Secretary's litigating position before the Commission is as much an exercise of delegated lawmaking powers as is the Secretary's promulgation of health and safety standards. Pp. 499 U. S. 150-157.
(b) The reviewing court should defer to the Secretary only if the Secretary's interpretation of an ambiguous regulation is reasonable. That interpretation is subject to the same Administrative Procedure Act standard of substantive review that applies to any other exercise of delegated chanroblesvirtualawlibrarychanroblesvirtualawlibrary
lawmaking power. Moreover, the decision to use a citation as the initial means for announcing a particular interpretation may bear on the adequacy of notice to regulated parties, the quality of the Secretary's elaboration of pertinent policy considerations, and other factors relevant to the reasonableness of the Secretary's exercise of delegated lawmaking powers. Since the Court of Appeals did not address the reasonableness of the Secretary's interpretation, it, rather than this Court, must do so in the first instance on remand. Pp. 499 U. S. 157-159.
891 F.2d 1495 (CA10 1989), reversed and remanded.
MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.