When a BNSF employee reports an on-the-job injury, the Railroad orders the employee to disclose medical information to a medical case manager. But when an employee reports a non-work related injury, the Railroad leaves them alone. BNSF employee Travis Klinger reported a work injury and was ordered to contact such a medical manager. When he declined to do so, he was suspended for “failure to comply with a direct order.” The Administrative Law Judge reversed that discipline and ordered BNSF to pay $100,000 in punitive damages. Klinger v. BNSF Railway.
The Federal Rail Safety Act is a “make whole remedy” statute, and a federal judge has clarified some important points regarding the range of remedies available to railroad employees who report injuries or safety hazards.
O’Neal v. Norfolk Southern Railroad Company concerned an employee who fell from a chair because the seat was not properly bolted to the frame. After he reported both the injury and the hazardous safety condition, the Railroad accused him of lying about it and fired him. The jury found the Railroad violated the FRSA and awarded O’Neal back pay, emotional distress damages, and punitive damages.
What Is A “Good Faith” Refusal?
Under subsection (a)(2) of the Federal Rail Safety Act, it is protected activity for an employee “to refuse to violate or assist in the violation of any Federal law, rule, or regulation relating to railroad safety.” Now comes a Circuit Court decision clarifying what qualifies as “a refusal” to violate a FRA safety regulation.
A $1.15 Million SPA Whistleblower Settlement
It took four long years, but a full measure of justice has come to my client Captain John Loftus. John was the Captain of a 850 foot long container ship who took safety seriously. After his employer ignored his internal reports of unsafe conditions, John went outside to the American Bureau of Shipping and Coast Guard, who forced Horizon Lines to correct the conditions. Horizon then found a pretext to fire John from his Master position. Both the Administrative Law trial Judge and the Administrative Review Board appeals judges ruled in his favor, ordering over $1.15 million in back pay, emotional distress, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and costs. John refused to compromise, ultimately forcing the Company to pay the full $1.15 million, with no confidentiality. So hats off to John for insisting on clearing his reputation while being made whole.
What is Adverse Action?
The question arises, in order to qualify as an “adverse action” under the Federal Rail Safety Act, does a railroad’s investigation into an employee’s actions have to result in actual discipline? What if the charge is eventually dropped? No harm no foul? A recent district court decision clarifies the matter:
While railroaders and truckers generate the most cases, seamen and merchant mariners also are protected from retaliation when they blow the whistle on safety issues. The Seaman’s Protection Act prohibits retaliation against any seaman who reports a work related injury or who reports to the U.S. Coast Guard or American Bureau of Shipping “that a violation of a maritime safety law or regulation has occurred.” In 2013 Captain John Loftus brought a landmark SPA case against Horizon Lines and Matson Alaska when they fired him after he reported numerous safety violations to the USCG and ABS.
Federal Rail Safety Act subsection (c)(1) prohibits railroads from denying, delaying, or interfering with the medical treatment of employees “injured during the course of employment.” In a fact driven decision, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals sidesteps deciding the temporal scope of that protection (just first aid or entire course of treatment?) and its interpretative standard (can a railroad’s denial of a medical claim payment constitute interference?). Instead, the Court merely commented: “We suggest that the Administrative Review Board might reexamine and further explicate its reasoning regarding Section 20109(c)’s interpretation in the future.” Metro North Commuter Railroad Company v. United States Department of Labor (previously captioned as Anthony Santiago v. Metro North Railroad).
In the Metro North case, the Railroad’s Medical Department contractor refused to approve payment for a treatment procedure based on its view that Santiago’s occupational injury had resolved. Given a lack of evidence showing the Railroad’s direct involvement in that determination, the Circuit Court found there was not enough proof the Railroad improperly influenced the contractor’s action. So the Circuit’s decision is limited to that narrow set of facts, and obviously does not apply to actions taken directly by a railroad’s own supervisors or by its own medical department.
The take away? The resolution of subsection (c)(1)’s scope and standard must wait another day. For more on the whistleblower rights of rail workers, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.
The FRSA is a “make whole remedy” statute, so the question arises: can OSHA force a recalcitrant railroad to train its managers so they comply with the statute going forward? The short answer is: yes, when the facts call for it. The long answer is found in Administrative Law Judge Timothy J. McGrath’s decision in Giuliano v. CSX Transportation, Inc.
In a case of first impression, a federal judge has applied FRSA subsection (c)(2)’s exception to the prohibition against railroads disciplining employees for following the orders of a treating physician. Stapleton v. Union Pac. R.R. Co.
The exception to (c)(2) is:
a railroad carrier’s refusal to permit an employee to return to work following medical treatment shall not be considered a violation of this section if the refusal is pursuant to Federal Railroad Administration medical standards for fitness for duty or, if there are no pertinent FRA standards, a carrier’s medical standards for fitness for duty.
Kelly Stapleton was a locomotive engineer who reported an injury for which he received medical treatment. When his treating doctor OK’d him to return to work, the Railroad’s Medical Department refused to allow him to do so.
Turns out that four years before, the Railroad had added “treatment with anti-seizure medication to prevent seizures” to its list of medically disqualifying conditions. Separate from his work injury, Stapleton had been diagnosed with epilepsy and was being treated with anti-seizure medication. So when his return to work exam revealed that, the Railroad refused to allow him to continue operating locomotives.
Stapleton sued under the FRSA claiming the refusal was in retaliation for his reporting of an injury. But the federal judge found (c)(2)’s Safe Harbor “exempts railroads from retaliation claims” for refusing to allow an employee to return to work pursuant to the railroad’s “medical standards for fitness for duty.”
It is especially important for rail workers in safety sensitive positions to know how to book off when their medical condition renders them unsafe. To quote the Chairman of the NTSB: “The public deserves alert operators. That’s not too much to ask.” Yes, but how can a rail worker protect a safety absence from discipline? Well, in Winch v. Dir, OWPC, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 3584 (11th Cir. 2018), the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals spells out how railroad employees can have safety absences protected by FRSA subsection (b)(1):
After careful review, we find that the ARB’s fact-specific decision was supported by substantial evidence. Like the ARB, we do not opine on whether calling in to report one’s own illness can qualify as “reporting . . . a hazardous . . . condition” under § 20109(b). Assuming for purposes of this opinion that it can, the ARB relied on substantial evidence in concluding that Winch did not actually “report . . . hazardous . . . condition” under § 20109(b)(1)(A). As the ARB noted, when Winch called in sick, he told the crew operator only his name, his identification number, and his desire to be marked off sick; he failed to list or describe any of his symptoms and how they would impact the performance of his duties. Nor did Winch otherwise put CSX on notice that he was “reporting . . . a hazardous . . . condition.” Indeed, nothing in his call indicated that he was attempting to trigger this hazardous-condition provision as opposed to simply requesting a sick day.
The take away? A railroad worker who wants a safety absence to be protected from discipline under FRSA subsection (b)(1) must:
- inform the Railroad orally and in writing that he is in an unsafe condition to perform his duties, by
- listing his symptoms and describing how they would impact the safe performance of his railroad duties, and
- if possible, backing it up with a doctor’s note confirming the symptoms and the doctor’s order not to work.
Safety absences must be protected. Here is the full text of Winch v. Dir, OWPC, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 3584 (11th Cir. 2018). For more on the whistleblower rights of railroad employees, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.