No One Happy About Venue in Amazon Safety Suit

While the New York attorney general wants the case in Manhattan Supreme, Amazon says she should have thought of that before she “copy and pasted” a suit that the retail behemoth already faces in Brooklyn Fed.

(Courthouse News photo/Barbara Leonard)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Brooklyn or Manhattan? It’s a tired question for many New Yorkers but one that Amazon fought doggedly on Thursday while trying to transfer allegations over pandemic-safety conditions for its workers. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James brought the complaint in state court last month, saying Amazon had fired workers who blew the whistle on sanitation lapses and other issues as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020. 

The suit has since been made into a federal case in Manhattan, but neither party wants to keep it there. Amazon says it belongs in Brooklyn federal court, where the company has filed its own lawsuit against James to stop her investigation. 

The attorney general’s office, conversely, has moved to remand the matter to state court, saying it was brought to protect constituents under state law. 

Further, the suit has a goal of “ensuring workers can make complaints about employers’ health and safety standards,” Fiona Kaye with the state attorney general’s office said during oral arguments this afternoon in New York’s Southern District. 

Though James’ complaint repeatedly mentions guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kaye said that the guidance is just that — not federal law or regulation that would keep the case in federal court. 

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

“This complaint is the mirror image of Palmer’s,” where James filed 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. 

Amazon has defended its disciplinary action against both Smalls and Palmer, saying in its complaint against James that the two employees had not complied with social distancing requirements when they attended protests over working conditions. 

The case against Amazon is “about a defined, discreet group of individuals,” who are the real parties in interest, said Schwartz, of the firm Gibson Dunn. “The state cannot declare itself by statute to be the real party in interest when it would not be.” 

Kaye argued in her brief that Amazon’s motion misconstrues the state’s case, a “bald attempt to escape the jurisdiction of the state court.” 

The company “resorts to the far-fetched argument that New York is not the real party in interest,” Kaye’s brief says, “even though this lawsuit was brought in state court under a state law that expressly confers sovereign enforcement power on the state Attorney General alone.” 

Neither Amazon nor the attorney general’s office immediately returned requests for comment. 

Thursday’s arguments came as Amazon faces pressure around the country for the treatment of its workers, deemed essential during the pandemic but left without support to keep them safe, as many workers say. 

“Since the pandemic began, it is clear that Amazon has valued profit over people and has failed to ensure the health and safety of its workers,” James said in a statement. 

Separate from the New York suits, an organized labor rights movement among Amazon workers in Birmingham, Alabama, has garnered attention and support from pro-union political figures. Senator Bernie Sanders will visit the workers on Friday, the eve of their vote on whether to unionize. 

First lady Jill Biden, who has called herself a proud union member, has a visit to Birmingham planned for the same day, part of the “Help Is Here” tour. Joined by actress Jennifer Garner, the first lady is expected to focus on child poverty in Alabama. It’s not clear whether she will address the Amazon union vote taking place the following day. 

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