In an important decision clarifying the broad scope of adverse action under the Federal Rail Safety Act, Judge Theresa C. Timlin confirms that the mere act of filing of charges against an injured railroad employee is an unfavorable personnel action sufficient to support a FRSA violation.

The facts in Vernace v. PATH Rail are: after a signal tester reported an injury, the Railroad sent a disciplinary charge letter scheduling an investigation; however, the investigation hearing was never held, and the Railroad eventually dropped the charges.

The worker contended that the filing of charges scheduling a disciplinary hearing is in and of itself an adverse unfavorable personnel action, whereas the Railroad argued no adverse action took place because the employee was not actually disciplined in any way. OSHA ruled in the worker’s favor, and then a full trial was held before Administrative Law Judge Timlin.

Judge Timlin began her analysis by pointing out that whistleblower laws such as the FRSA “consistently have been recognized as remedial statutes warranting broad interpretation and application.” Indeed, the ARB stresses that the list of prohibited activities is quite broad, and includes reprimands (verbal or written), written warnings, and counseling sessions where the potential for future discipline is implied. And in fact the ARB holds that the scope of adverse action under whistleblower laws is even broader than the scope of adverse action under the Supreme Court’s Burlington Northern v. White Title VII standard.

In ruling that the charge letter alone is a violation of the FRSA, Judge Timlin stressed that such action is not trivial:

an employer should never be permitted to deliberately single out an employees for unfavorable employment action as retaliation for protected whistleblower activity. . . .

The filing of charges against an employee is not de minimis harm. Those charges are the first step in a disciplinary process that has the potential to culminate in a warning, suspension, or termination. Once charges have been sustained and discipline meted out, the employee is then susceptible to a higher degree of punishment if he or she commits a subsequent offense. This is likely to have a chilling effect on reasonable employees, who may be dissuaded from filing injury reports for fear of being charged with safety violations and potentially being disciplined. Indeed, Complainant employee said she considered the charge letter and hearing to be very serious because she was afraid that money, lost time, and promotions were at risk due to the charges against her. . . .

The Railroad’s contention that no adverse action occurred in this case because Complainant was never actually disciplined in contrary to the law. I find the filing of charges against Complainant which carried the potential for future discipline was an unfavorable personnel action.

Vernace v. PATH Rail at pages 24-27. Here is the full decision. The moral is, once a railroad serves an employee with a charge letter, it cannot escape a FRSA violation even if it cancels the hearing and drops the charges. For more on the FRSA, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.