In a major decision with national implications, the Administrative Review Board confirms that Federal Rail Safety Act subsection (c)(2) does indeed protect treatments for non-work related medical conditions. Williams v. Grand Trunk Western Railroad. In so doing, the ARB explicitly rejects the 3rd Circuit’s holding in Bala v. PATH, which imposed a work related limitation on the scope of (c)(2) protection. The result is that in every Circuit other than the 3rd, it now is the official position of the Department of Labor that (c)(2) protects employees who follow their treating doctor’s orders for a non work related medical condition.

The plain language of subsection (c)(2) states: “A railroad may not discipline or threaten to discipline employees for following the orders or treatment plan of a treating physician.” Congress did not include any work-related limitation, and the ARB explained why the 3rd Circuit’s imposition of a work-related limitation is “counter to the intent of Congress”:

the express language set out in Sections 20109(c)(1) and (2), as well as the legislative history, makes it clear that Congress did not intend to foreclose protection from railroad workers who were following a physician’s treatment plan for a non-work-related condition or injury.

Because there is no rule of intercircuit stare decisis, federal agencies are not bound by the decision of a circuit court in litigation arising in other circuits. Thus, we decline to apply the holding in PATH to cases not arising in the Third Circuit.

The wrong headedness of the 3rd Circuit’s Bala “work related” limitation has become glaringly obvious in light of the recent string of deadly derailments related to the untreated medical conditions of locomotive engineers. Situational awareness must be maintained at all times, and no one wants an employee in an unsafe condition to perform safety sensitive railroad work. When an employee follows his doctor’s orders not to work in an unsafe condition, that absence must be encouraged and protected. Period.

Bottom line? The ARB has given a green light to workers in all the other circuits to press complaints with OSHA and Administrative Law Judges when railroads discipline them for following the orders of their treating doctors, regardless of whether the medical condition is work or non-work related. Here is the complete text of Williams v. Grand Trunk Western  Railroad Company. For more information on FRSA Section 20109, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.