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Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds ARB Decision in Favor of Truck Driver Who was Fired After He Abandoned His Disabled Vehicle to Avoid Freezing to Death

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In a recent case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the Court upheld an Administrative Review Board (ARB) decision finding that a truck driver was terminated in violation of the whistleblower provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA).  The truck driver, Alphonse Maddin, unhitched his truck from a trailer and drove away to avoid freezing to death after the brakes on the trailer froze due and roadside assistance failed to respond.  Maddin had reported to his employer, TransAm Trucking, both the condition of the trailer and the threat to his health due to the freezing weather conditions.  The Court held that Maddin had engaged in protected activity under the STAA by reporting the frozen brakes and the threat to his health; and that the driver’s termination for leaving the trailer to seek safety violated the whistleblower protection provisions of the STAA.

In TransAm Trucking, Inc. v. Administrative Review Board, United States Department of Labor, No. 15-9504, 2016 WL 3909526 (10th Cir. July 15, 2016), TransAm  challenged a Department of Labor (DOL) finding that Maddin engaged in protected activity under the STAA when he contacted TransAm’s dispatch office to report that the brakes on the trailer had frozen, and when he refused to obey TransAm’s command to continue driving while dragging the trailer despite the trailer’s frozen brakes.

The Tenth Circuit upheld the DOL finding, as well as a subsequent ARB decision affirming it.  The Tenth Circuit agreed that Maddin’s refusal to drag the trailer with its frozen brakes, and his decision to leave the trailer when the heater in his truck malfunctioned and both his torso and legs went numb due to cold, were “inextricably” linked to TransAm’s decision to fire Maddin.

Specifically, the Court held that Maddin’s report of the frozen brakes constituted protected activity because “uncorrected vehicle defects, such as faulty brakes, violate safety regulations and reporting a defective vehicle falls squarely within the definition of protected activity under the STAA.”  Likewise, the Court found that Maddin’s refusal to drag the disabled trailer constituted a reasonable refusal to operate a vehicle under the STAA.

This case is important because it clearly and succinctly describes a situation in which a motor vehicle operator successfully engaged in protected activity by refusing to operate a vehicle in a manner that was unsafe to both the driver and the public.  Additionally, it demonstrates that access to both administrative adjudication and federal courts ultimately serves the purpose of whistleblower protection statutes – to provide whistleblowers with meaningful protection when they refuse to commit safety violations or otherwise put both themselves and the public in danger despite an employer’s unlawful order.  .

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