Fighting Federal Rail Safety Act claims just got a lot more expensive for railroads. Two recent appellate court decisions confirm that—no matter how small a worker’s FRSA economic damages may be–the railroad has to pay the FULL amount of the worker’s attorneys fees and costs. The appellate decisions apply to FRSA cases in the administrative law system as well as in federal court.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals is just one step below the United States Supreme Court. In an opinion directly applicable to FRSA cases, the Second Circuit held there is no such thing as a “de minimis” award in a fee-shifting case. In Millea v. Metro North Railroad, the worker succeeded on one of two FMLA counts and recovered $615 in wages. Instead of awarding Millea’s attorney $144,000 in attorney fees, the trial judge only awarded $204, finding that the award was “de minimis” and had “no public policy significance.” Declaring that to be “legal error” and an “abuse of discretion,” the Second Circuit reversed.
The Second Circuit stressed that by enacting fee-shifting provisions in statutes such as the FRSA, Congress “has already made the policy determination that such claims serve an important public policy purpose disproportionate to their cash value.” As such, there is no such thing as a “de minimis” recovery under the FRSA. Such
claims are often small-ticket items, and small damages awards should be expected without raising the inference that the victory was technical or de minimis. . . . Especially for claims where the financial recovery is likely to be small, calculating attorneys’ fees as a proportion of damages runs directly contrary to the purpose of fee-shifting statutes: assuring that civil rights claims of modest cash value can attract competent counsel. The whole purpose of fee-shifting statutes is to generate attorneys’ fees that are disproportionate to the plaintiff’s recovery.
Similarly, the administrative appeals court for the FRSA, the Administrative Review Board (ARB), confirms that when a worker prevails on any part of his claim, he “is entitled to all costs and expenses including attorney’s fees reasonably incurred in bringing his complaint.” And the ARB flatly refuses to reduce an attorney’s fee award because the amount of the fee is larger than the wages recovered by the worker. Why? Because to do so would chill attorneys from taking cases where the economic losses are small in relation to the time expended by the attorney. Thus, in Furland v. American Airlines, the worker was awarded $915 in lost wages and $39,000 in attorney’s fees, and the ARB refused “to reduce the attorney fee award based on its disproportionate size or because the worker only prevailed on part of his claims.” So even when a worker only wins part of his FRSA claim, the railroad still has to pay the full amount of attorney’s fees, no matter how small the lost wages may be.
Bottom line? The reflexive denial of FRSA claims is no longer a cost-free option for railroads. Every worker’s attorney can rest easy in the knowledge that the more a railroad drags out a FRSA case, the more the attorney will get paid. And railroads must be prepared to pay ALL the fees for the lawyers on BOTH sides, even in small damage cases where only one part of the claim succeeds.