No matter what a railroad may try to tell you, a Federal Rail Safety Act claim under OSHA jurisdiction cannot be settled without the express written approval of OSHA. Here’s why.
The FRSA itself states: “The rights and remedies in this section may not be waived by any agreement . . .” 49 USC 20109(h). And the regulations confirm that during OSHA’s investigative phase, “the case may be settled if the Assistant Secretary, the complainant, and the respondent agree to a settlement.” 29 CFR 1982.111(d)(1).
So what happens when there is a FELA General Release containing broad and unlimited language referring to the release of any and all matters? Can the railroad turn around and claim such a FELA Release waives any FRSA claims as well?
Short answer: no way. OSHA spells out what would happen:
If the parties do not submit their agreement to OSHA or if OSHA does not approve the agreement signed, OSHA must deny the withdrawal, inform the parties that the investigation will proceed, and issue Secretary’s Findings on the merits of the case. The findings must include the statement that the parties reached a settlement that was either not submitted for review by OSHA or not approved by OSHA.
Whistleblower Investigations Manual at Chapter Six, Section IV.D.4. So unless a FELA General Release specifically references a FRSA claim and has been approved by OSHA, it can not withdraw or bar any FRSA claim.
So what’s a prudent attorney to do when a FELA Release has not been approved by OSHA? The best practice for all sides is either to exclude the FRSA entirely in body of the Release, or attach a rider to the Release along these lines:
Federal Rail Safety Act claims under the jurisdiction of OSHA’s Office of Whistleblower Protection cannot be withdrawn or settled without the express written approval of OSHA, and the parties hereby acknowledge that the attached General Release has not been submitted to OSHA and does not purport to waive any rights or remedies under the Federal Rail Safety Act.