Amazon Takes an Early Loss in New York Covid-19 Safety Suit

A Manhattan judge sided with the New York attorney general, denying Amazon’s bid to transfer a pandemic worker safety lawsuit to Brooklyn. 

In this Feb. 14, 2019 file photo, people stand in the lobby for Amazon offices in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

NEW YORK (CN) — A Manhattan federal judge ruled Friday that New York state court is the appropriate venue for the state attorney general’s lawsuit accusing Amazon of punishing employees who blew the whistle on unsafe worker conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James brought her state court complaint in February, saying her office began looking into Amazon worker complaints in March of 2020, as New York City became the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. 

Amazon filed its own complaint against James in federal court in Brooklyn just one business day earlier in an effort to stop the investigation. 

After James’ lawsuit was removed to federal court in Manhattan, the e-commerce giant fought to move it over to Brooklyn, while James insisted that the lawsuit belonged back in state court. 

James prevailed, with U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff granting her motion to demand and denying Amazon’s motion to transfer. 

“An opinion explaining the reasons for this ruling will follow in due course,” wrote the Bill Clinton-appointed judge. 

During oral arguments over the venue, James said her lawsuit was brought to protect constituents under state law. 

The attorney general’s goal is “ensuring workers can make complaints about employers’ health and safety standards,” said Fiona Kaye, with the state attorney general’s office. 

“As we have contended all along, Amazon has forced its employees to work in unsafe conditions throughout this pandemic, in violation of New York state labor laws,” the office said in a statement Friday evening. “We are pleased with today’s decision to allow this case to be heard in state court, where it belongs. We look forward to making our case and continuing our work to protect workers.”

Amazon argued that the attorney general’s lawsuit mirrors those filed by two workers, Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, each of whom filed federally in New York’s Eastern District. The lawsuits accused Amazon of firing Smalls, and issuing Palmer a final written warning, after they publicly protested the company’s conditions. 

“This complaint is the mirror image of Palmer’s,” where James filed an amicus brief, argued attorney Jason Schwartz on behalf of Amazon. 

“Much as the AG would like to run from it,” Schwartz said, the complaint is “essentially copy and pasted” from the complaint brought by Palmer. 

Palmer’s lawsuit was dismissed in Brooklyn, and he has appealed to the Second Circuit, with arguments scheduled for May. 

Amazon defended punitive measures against Palmer and Smalls, saying the employees did not respect social distancing and quarantine rules when they protested their work environment. 

Accusing the e-commerce giant of valuing “profit over people,” James described safety lapses at two Amazon facilities: One in Staten Island, a fulfillment center known as JFK8, and another in Queens, a distribution center called DBK1.

Amazon “repeatedly and persistently failed … to institute reasonable and adequate measures to protect” its combined workforce of 5,000 Empire State employees from the spread of the virus, according to James’ 31-page complaint

In addition to ignoring its duty to follow cleaning and disinfecting requirements, Amazon failed to identify or notify employees potentially exposed to the virus through their contact with co-workers in the same facilities who tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19, according to the lawsuit. 

Amazon is also accused of failing to create policies that gave workers enough time to practice appropriate hygiene and social distancing. 

Representatives for Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment following Friday’s ruling.

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