Free copy of opinion available here.
This is significant not only for railroad employees who believe they face retaliation for having reported a safety problem, but for employees in other sectors like maritime, aviation and motor carrier who are protected by federal statutory counterparts to the Federal Rail Safety Act.
The arrangement of my excerpts below from the court’s opinion cribs liberally from the structure of Charles Goetsch, Esq.’s summary – the lawyer who argued before the 3rd Circuit on behalf of employee-complainant here whose summary is included at “Recommended Reading” below:
1. The 3rd Circuit took an expansive view of the safety purpose of the Federal Rail Safety Act – particularly as amended in 2007 to include anti-retaliation measures:
“The purpose of the Federal Rail Safety Act (“FRSA”) is “to promote safety in every area of railroad operations.” 49 U.S.C. § 20101. The FRSA was substantially amended in 2007 to include anti-retaliation measures. Prior to the passage of the FRSA, whistleblower retaliation complaints by railroad carrier employees were subject to mandatory dispute resolution pursuant to the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. See generally 75 Fed. Reg. 53,523 (Aug. 31, 2010). Congress passed the FRSA amendment in 2007, expanding the scope of the anti-retaliation protections and providing enforcement authority with the Department of Labor. Under the newly amended FRSA, a railroad carrier “may not discharge, demote, suspend, reprimand, or in any other way discriminate against an employee if such discrimination is due, in whole or in part” to the employee’s engagement in one of numerous protected activities. 49 U.S.C. § 20109(a). The protected activities are enumerated in the statute, and include notifying the railroad carrier of a work-related personal injury or a work-related illness. Id. § 20109(a)(4).”
2. The 3rd Circuit adopted a burden of proof statement and burden-shifting rule that practicing legal counsel will view as advantaging the employee-complainant; the same can be said of the 3rd Circuit’s statutory construction of the term “contributing factor”:
“It is necessary for us to interpret the FRSA burden- shifting scheme. Statutory analysis begins with the plain language of the statute, “the language employed by Congress.” Am. Tobacco Co. v. Patterson, 456 U.S. 63, 68 (1982) (quoting Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., 442 U.S. 330, 337 (1979)) (internal quotations omitted). This Court must give effect to the intent of Congress by giving these words their “ordinary meaning.” Id. (internal quotation omitted). Considering the plain meaning of the statute, FRSA burden- shifting is much more protective of plaintiff-employees than the McDonnell Douglas framework. The plaintiff-employee need only show that his protected activity was a “contributing factor” in the retaliatory discharge or discrimination, not the sole or even predominant cause. See 49 U.S.C. § 42121(b)(2)(B)(ii). In other words, “a contributing factor is any factor, which alone or in combination with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision.” Ameristar Airways, Inc. v. Admin. Rev. Bd., 650 F.3d 563, 567 (5th Cir. 2011) (quoting Allen, 514 F.3d at 476 n.3 (internal quotation omitted).
“The term “contributing factor” is a term of art that has been elaborated upon in the context of other whistleblower statutes. The Federal Circuit noted the following in a Whistleblower Protection Act case:
“The words “a contributing factor” . . . mean any factor which, alone or in connection with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision. This test is specifically intended to overrule existing case law, which requires a whistleblower to prove that his protected conduct was a “significant”, “motivating”, “substantial”, or “predominant” factor in a personnel action in order to overturn that action.
Marano v. Dep’t of Justice, 2 F.3d 1137, 1140 (Fed. Cir. 1993) (quoting 135 Cong. Rec. 5033 (1989) (Explanatory Statement on S. 20)) (emphasis added by Federal Circuit). Furthermore, an employee “need not demonstrate the existence of a retaliatory motive on the part of the employee taking the alleged prohibited personnel action in order to establish that his disclosure was a contributing factor to the personnel action.” Marano, 2 F.3d at 1141 (emphasis in original); see also Coppinger-Martin v. Solis, 627 F.3d 745, 750 (9th Cir. 2010) (“A prima facie case does not require that the employee conclusively demonstrate the employer’s retaliatory motive.”).
“Once the employee asserts a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate, “by clear and convincing evidence, that the employer would have taken the same unfavorable personnel action in the absence of that behavior.” 49 U.S.C. § 42121(b)(2)(B)(ii). The “clear and convincing evidence” standard is the intermediate burden of proof, in between “a preponderance of the evidence” and “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” See Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, 425 (1979). To meet the burden, the employer must show that “the truth of its factual contentions are highly probable.” Colorado v. New Mexico, 467 U.S. 310, 316 (1984) (internal quotation omitted).”
3. As Charles Cahill puts it in his blog piece: “Even if an injured employee violates a Rule by following a common practice, the railroad nevertheless violates the FRSA if it disciplines that injured employee after ignoring other employees who followed the same practice.”
This case significantly clarifies the Federal Rail Safety Act as amended in 2007 with protections for whistle-blowers.
As I noted in a post a few weeks ago (here), the law displays considerable ambivalence about whistle-blower / anti-retaliation protections. [plug] Such protection as is offered by statute in the various transport modes and also outside the transport sector is often hedged in with short statute of limitations filing time limits, limited and conditional access to federal court, and considerable legal credence given to employer explanations of what they call as “disciplinary” action for claimed complainant rule violations.
From the standpoint of legal doctrine this case moves the needle toward complainant’s rights and requires more of the employer who would wish to strike down the complainant’s claim.
Practical business take-away:
Whatever one thinks is the proper policy toward whistle-blowers – in transport or elsewhere – this case makes matters considerably easier for the employee-complainant and harder for the employer who seeks to explain why it took action against the employee in question.
This holding and related opinion amount to a strong move in the employee-complainant’s direction. Railroad employees and railroad management should each take note, as Charles Cahill has underscored in his summary. A summary of a case that he argued himself to the 3rd Circuit.