What Is the Seaman's Protection Act, 46 USC §2114 (SPA)?

Updated January 23, 2024
11 min read
What Is the Seaman's Protection Act, 46 USC §2114 (SPA)?

Introduction

The Seaman's Protection Act, 46 USC §2114 (SPA), is a federal law that has been protecting the interests of United States mariners since 1984. Congress passed the SPA in response to whistleblower case law that developed in appellate courts. It held that the whistleblower provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) did not cover seamen who had been unfairly demoted and discharged from shipboard positions after reporting possible safety violations of the authorities.

What Does the Seaman's Protection Act Do?

The Seaman's Protection Act (SPA) is a US federal law designed to safeguard the rights of seamen. The act provides protections for seafarers who report maritime safety violations to the US Coast Guard or other authorities. The objective is to encourage mariners to report safety concerns without fearing retaliation from their employers or coworkers. It covers various forms of protection, including shielding seafarers from discriminatory practices and offering legal recourse for those who face unjust termination, demotion, or other forms of retaliation in response to disclosing maritime safety concerns. The Act is enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which investigates complaints of violation filed with the agency.

SPA Investigation Procedures

The procedure followed during the administrative investigation of SPA Complaints can be found in 29 CFR Part 1986. The process is initiated when a seaman files a complaint with OSHA. The complaints can be oral or written and in almost any form or language. However, SPA complaints must be filed to OSHA within 180 days after the adverse action alleged by the seaman was completed. Otherwise, the SPA claim may be barred by the statute of limitations.

Following a seaman's complaint, OSHA will evaluate the case and find out whether:

  • The seaman engaged in a protected activity;

  • The respondent knew or suspected that the seaman engaged in protected activity;

  • The seaman suffered an adverse action; and

  • The circumstances were sufficient to raise an inference that the protected activity was a contributing factor in the adverse action.

If the investigation goes ahead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) asks for a response document from the accused party. Then, an OSHA investigator can gather evidence and talk to witnesses. If OSHA has enough reason to think that unfair punishment took place, it creates an initial order that outlines help for the seaman.

The seaman and the respondent are permitted to settle their disputes at any time during the OSHA proceedings. However, OSHA must approve the settlement agreement.

Administrative review

Once OSHA issues its findings, either party of the dispute can file an objection within 30 days and request a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The parties provide evidence in the administrative law proceeding, which often includes evidence collected by the OSHA investigator. The ALJ can then resolve the matter at a hearing. Any of the parties or OSHA can appeal the ALJ's decision to the Department of Labor's Administrative Review Board (ARB). The ARB decision or the ALJ decision can also be reviewed by a US Court of Appeals.

Can an SPA case be filed in court?

While the initial SPA Complaint cannot be filed in federal court before the OSHA investigation, a seaman can bring a de novo action in a district court if OSHA has not issued a final decision within 210 days after the seaman's complaint.

SPA Key Terms

SPA aims to safeguard sailors against retaliation for engaging in protected activities. Understanding its key components can guide both seamen and employers in navigating legal compliance. Being informed about such details can help individuals make informed decisions and maintain a safe, fair, and lawful working environment onboard.

What is a contributing factor?

Notably, the SPA is a "contributing factor" statute, which means that OSHA will find that retaliation occurred if there is reasonable cause to believe that the seaman's protected activity was a factor that in any way affected the adverse action. Evidence that protected activity contributed to an adverse action is broad and can include:

  1. Close timing between the protected activity and the adverse action;

  2. Hostility towards the protected activity;

  3. Disparate treatment compared to other seamen;

  4. Changes in treatment before and after the complaint; and

  5. Indicators that a respondent's explanation is a pretext.

Who is a "seaman" under the SPA?

OSHA guidance defines "a seaman" for SPA purposes as any individual engaged or employed in any capacity aboard a covered vessel who is not a member of the armed forces. The term includes individual contractors performing the aforementioned work. A "covered vessel" is US-flagged or otherwise owned by a US citizen.

SPA protected activities

The protected activities under the SPA are as follows:

  1. Provided (or was about to provide) information relating to a violation of maritime safety laws or regulations to the United States Coast Guard or other appropriate federal agency or department;

  2. Testified in a proceeding brought to enforce a maritime safety law or regulation (this includes internal complaints);

  3. Refused to perform duties because of a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the seaman, other seamen, or the public if the seaman has first requested that the employer correct the dangerous condition;

  4. Notified or attempted to notify the vessel owner or the United States Coast Guard of a work-related injury or illness of a seaman;

  5. Cooperated with a safety investigation by the United States Coast Guard or the National Transportation Safety Board;

  6. Furnished information to any public official relating to any marine casualty where there is death, injury, or damage to property occurring in connection with vessel transportation; or

  7. Accurately reported hours of duty under Part A of Subtitle II of Title 46 of the United States Code.

SPA adverse actions

There is no specific list of "adverse actions" under the SPA. OSHA considers any action that could dissuade a reasonable seaman from engaging in SPA-protected activities to be adverse. Some examples include:

  • Firing or laying off;

  • Blacklisting;

  • Demoting;

  • Denying overtime or promotion;

  • Disciplining;

  • Denying benefits;

  • Failure to hire or rehire;

  • Intimidation;

  • Making threats, including threats against the seaman's credentials;

  • Reassignment affecting promotion or imposing more arduous duty;

  • Reducing pay or hours;

  • Shunning or isolation; and

  • Constructive discharge.

What Relief Is Available for Violation of the SPA?

If OSHA finds reasonable cause that unlawful retaliation occurred, it will issue a preliminary order, including appropriate relief. That relief may include job reinstatement, back pay, compensatory damages, neutral reference, case costs, attorney fees, and even punitive damages not exceeding $250,000.

Conclusion

Workplace retaliation aboard vessels remains an issue in the maritime industry. However, OSHA protection under the SPA may be broader than you think. If you are a seaman, have a look at the list of protected activities and consider whether you have faced any type of adverse action as a result. Then, call an experienced maritime lawyer who can help you assess whether you may be entitled to relief under the SPA.

Article by
Adam Deitz
Mariner Law, PLLC.

Adam Deitz is a maritime personal injury attorney at Mariner Law, PLLC. Adam is also a licensed merchant mariner with experience navigating commercial passenger vessels on both coasts. He is proud to use his years of experience to represent individuals who were injured on or around the navigable waters of the United States, including Jones Act seamen, vessel passengers, longshoremen, and recreational boaters.

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