The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals confirms that a railroad can violate the FRSA even if it honestly believes an employee violated a rule. In Blackorby II, the employee was disciplined for violating BNSF’s rule requiring the “immediate” reporting of work-related injuries. But reporting a work-related injury is protected activity under FRSA Section 20109, and a railroad violates Section 20109 if an employee’s untimely reporting contributed “in whole or in part” to the disciplinary action:

a railroad employer can, in fact, be held liable under the FRSA if it disciplines an employee based on its honestly held belief that the employee engaged in misconduct or committed a rules violation. Liability will still exist notwithstanding such a belief if the railroad’s retaliatory motive also played a contributing role in the decision and if the railroad fails to carry the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same action in the absence of the protected report.

The Circuit Court went on the underscore there is no inconsistency between a railroad being motivated in part by an honestly held belief the employee violated a rule and in part by a motive to retaliate against the employee for engaging in a FRSA protected activity.

The practical effect of this is to negate a railroad’s ability to discipline an employee for the “late” or “untimely” reporting of injuries. And in fact other federal courts have voided “late reporting” discipline based on a railroad’s rule requiring the “prompt” or “immediate” or “before end of shift” reporting of injuries. This is because the charge that an employee’s injury report was “late” is, while true, inextricably intertwined with the protected act of reporting the injury. In other words, the late reporting discipline cannot be explained without discussing the employee’s protected activity of reporting the injury. See, e.g., Smith-Bunge v. Wisconsin Central, Ltd., and Williams v. Illinois Central RR.

Here is the full Blackorby II decision. For more on the whistleblower rights of railroad workers, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.