The message of the Federal Rail Safety Act is clear: "safety trumps discipline." And until railroads fully embrace that new reality, the number of FRSA complaints will continue at a record pace.
Williams v. Grand Trunk Western Railroad is the latest confirmation of this new reality. In addition to elucidating the employee friendly standards governing any motion to dismiss a FRSA complaint, Williams underscores the FRSA’s robust protection of railroad workers who follow their doctor’s orders to remain off work due to any medical condition.
After locomotive engineer Williams took days off from work due to a medical condition that interfered with his ability to safely perform his job, the Railroad fired him for excessive absenteeism. When Williams filed a FRSA complaint, the Railroad asked Chief Administrative Law Judge Stephen L. Purcell to dismiss the complaint because the medical condition was not work-related. Chief Judge Purcell soundly rejected that argument:
I find that the statutory language of Section 20109(c)(2) protects employees who are following a physician’s treatment plan for illnesses or injuries, regardless of whether they are work-related, inasmuch as such an interpretation flows from the plain language of the statute and advances the overall safety purposes of the FRSA.
When it is the medical judgment of a treating physician that a patient is not physically capable of performing his or her work-related duties because of an injury or illness, that individual should not have to choose between, on the one hand, following the physician’s advice to abstain from working or, on the other hand, jeopardizing the health and safety of the employee’s fellow workers and the traveling public by working because the employee may be fired. . . . A railroad cannot simply fire an employee for relying on his treating physician’s opinion that he was too ill to work. Doing so would thwart the very purpose of the FRSA to promote safety and reduce accidents and incidents.
This is in line with the ALJ’s Decision in Bala v. PATH and with the spirit of the ARB’s interpretation of Section (c) in Santiago v. Metro North Railroad. Thanks to the FRSA, safety now trumps discipline in the railroad industry.