A recent decision against Amtrak clarifies the Federal Rail Safety Act rights of injured employees to return to work over a railroad’s objection.

After Amtrak locomotive engineer Jonette Nagra reported a work related injury, her treating neurosurgeon kept her out of work on temporary total disability. Eventually her doctor released her to return to work full duty with no restrictions, but Amtrak refused to give her a return to work physical because she had filed a FELA lawsuit alleging permanent disability and had refused Amtrak’s offer to settle conditioned on the surrender of all her rights.

Administrative Law Judge C. Richard Avery found Amtrak’s conduct violated FRSA subsections (a)(4) and (c)(2) and called for punitive damages. Judge Avery’s Decision is notable for its further elucidation of railroad’s workers FRSA right to return to work pursuant to a treating doctor’s recommendation. Citing the ARB’s Decision in Rudolph v. Amtrak, Judge Avery noted:

The ARB found that under (c)(2), attempting to return to work based on a treating physician’s recommendation is an FRSA protected activity, and a railroad’s refusal to permit an employee’s return to work based on a physician’s recommendation constitutes adverse employment action. . . .

When an employee seeks to return to work based on his or her treating physician’s recommendation, the railroad’s refusal to allow the employee to return to work constitutes discipline in violation of FRSA subsection (c)(2) unless the railroad’s refusal is based on FRA medical standards for fitness for duty or secondarily, the railroad’s medical standards for fitness for duty.

In this case there was no FRA medical fitness standard or Amtrak medical fitness standard that prevented Nagra from returning to work. In other words, Amtrak has no legal defense to the adverse action taken under subsection (c)(2) of the FRSA.

Judge Avery ordered Amtrak to give Nagra a return to work physical and to reinstate her if she passes it. And in light of Amtrak’s indifference and disregard for its employee’s FRSA protected rights, the Judge ordered Amtrak to pay punitive damages as well as attorney fees.

This is another example of the independence of FRSA complaints from FELA lawsuits or claims. The allegations pled in a FELA lawsuit or a worker’s refusal to accept a railroad’s FELA settlement offer will not excuse a railroad’s violations of the FRSA. For the full text of Nagra v. National Railroad Passenger Corp., click here.