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U.S. Supreme Court

National Indep. Coal Operators' Assn. v. Kleppe, 423 U.S. 388 (1976)

National Independent Coal Operators' Association v. Kleppe

No. 73-2066

Argued October 6, 1975

Decided January 26, 1976

423 U.S. 388


Section 109(a)(1) of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 requires the Secretary of the Interior to assess a civil monetary penalty against a coal mine operator for each violation of the mandatory health and safety standards prescribed by the Act and other provisions. But under § 109(a)(3) a penalty may be assessed only after the operator

"has been given an opportunity for a public hearing and the Secretary has determined, by decision incorporating his findings of fact therein, that a violation did occur, and the amount of the penalty which is warranted. . . ."

Implementing regulations provide that assessment officers assess a penalty based on a notice of violation issued by mine inspectors and a penalty schedule graduated according to the seriousness of the violation, and further provide that, if the mine operator fails to make a timely protest against the proposed assessment and to request adjudication, he is deemed to waive his right to protest, including his right to formal adjudication and opportunity for hearing, and the proposed assessment becomes the Secretary's "final assessment." An unpaid penalty is enforceable under the Act only by way of subsequent judicial hearing in a district court in which the operator is entitled to a trial de novo as to the amount of the penalty. Petitioners sought injunctive and declaratory relief on the ground that the summary civil penalty assessment procedures permitted by the regulations violated the Act's procedural requirements. The District Court upheld this contention, ruling that the Secretary must make express findings of fact, whether or not the operator requests a hearing. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: The language of § 109(a)(3), especially when read in light of its legislative history, requires the Secretary to make formal findings of fact as a predicate for a penalty assessment order only when the mine operator exercises his chanrobles.com-red

Page 423 U. S. 389

statutory right to request an administrative hearing on the factual issues relating to the penalty. Pp. 423 U. S. 397-402.

(a) The word "opportunity," as used in § 109(a)(3), would be meaningless if the statute contemplated formal adjudicated findings whether or not a requested evidentiary hearing is held, and, absent a request for a hearing, the Secretary has a sufficient factual predicate for a penalty assessment based on the reports of the qualified inspectors who find violations; when the assessment officers fix penalties, as the Secretary's "authorized representatives," the operator may still have the penalty reviewed in the district court. P. 423 U. S. 398.

(b) The requirement for a formal hearing under § 109(a)(3) is keyed to a request, and the requirement for formal findings is keyed to the same request. P. 423 U. S. 398.

(c) Such a reading of the statute comports with the Act's purpose of imposing stricter coal mine regulation to prevent accidents and disasters; the deterrent provided by monetary sanctions is essential to that purpose, and effective enforcement of the Act would be weakened were the Secretary required to make findings of fact for every penalty assessment including those cases in which the mine operator did not request a hearing, thus indicating no disagreement with the Secretary's proposed determination. Pp. 423 U. S. 398-399.

161 U.S.App.D.C. 68, 494 F.2d 87, affirmed.

BURGER, C.J.,delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all Members joined except STEVENS, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. chanrobles.com-red

Page 423 U. S. 390


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