A federal district court has ruled that a General Release for a Federal Employers Liability Act  personal injury does not also release a pending Federal Rail Safety Act complaint. In Tagliatela v. Metro North Railroad, 2012 U.S.Dist LEXIS 161835 (D.Conn. Nov. 13, 2012), custodian Ralph Tagliatela was disciplined for the “late reporting” of an injury. He filed a FRSA complaint with OSHA, and while that investigation was pending signed a General Release for his FELA claim. A month later, OSHA issued its merit Finding, to which Metro North objected without citing the FELA Release. After Tagliatela opted into federal district court, Metro North filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing for the first time that the FELA General Release also released the FRSA complaint.

We already have pointed out that parties cannot release FRSA complaints without the express approval of OSHA. Click here for the reasons why. In Tagliatela, OSHA had not approved any settlement of the FRSA complaint it was investigating, and in fact issued a merit Finding after the FELA Release was executed. However, the district court did not actually rule on the legal necessity of OSHA approval because it found the terms of the General Release itself did not include the pending FRSA complaint.

The federal judge found “it is clear from the terms of the release and the parties’ intent that Tagliatela’s FRSA claim is not barred.” The injury occurred on April 12, 2008, and the disciplinary charge was filed a couple weeks later, and the judge drew a critical distinction between when an injury claim arises and when a FRSA claim arises:

the release cannot be interpreted to mean that Tagliatela’s FRSA claim arose from the injury he sustained when he twisted his knee on April 12, 2008. Rather, his FRSA claim can be interpreted as having arisen from his protected activity of reporting a workplace injury and not the injury itself. Further, the circumstances of the transaction confirm that it was not the parties’ intent to release Tagliatela’s FRSA claim. When the release was executed on May 29, 2009, the parties had been actively litigating Tagliatela’s FRSA claim before OSHA for almost a year. . . . The failure to include any language expressly releasing Tagliatela’s pending FRSA claim clearly evinces that it was not the parties’ intent to release Tagliatela’s FRSA claim. . . Since the release does not bar Tagliatela’s FRSA claim, this Court need not address whether OSHA approval was necessary to effectuate any such release.

And even if a FELA release specifically references a pending FRSA complaint, it is OSHA’s position that any “settlement” of a FRSA complaint by the parties has no force or effect unless and until it is expressly approved by OSHA.

So, what is the bottom line? Unless OSHA has explicitly approved the settlement of a FRSA complaint after reviewing the FELA release for fairness and compliance with DOL policies, it is magical thinking for the parties to pretend that a pending FRSA complaint is actually included in a FELA release. For the full text of the district court’s ruling, see Tagliatela v. Metro North Railroad, 2012 U.S.Dist LEXIS 161835 (D.Conn. Nov. 13, 2012). For more on the FRSA, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.