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Topic: Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Michigan Court Upholds Right to Pursue FRSA Cases in Federal Court

In a recent case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, the court denied Grand Trunk Railroad’s Motion to Dismiss, holding that a plaintiff may pursue a Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) whistleblower retaliation claim in federal court, even after he has pursued the same claim administratively with the Department of Labor. The court held that pursuing remedies in both venues did not constitute bad faith on the part of the complainant, did not present a res judicata (claim preclusion) issue, and did not violate the due process rights of the defendant railroad. This case is important because it affirms the options available to a whistleblower to fully adjudicate claims of unlawful retaliation.

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Pending Legislation Seeks to Expand Whistleblower Protections

Whistleblowers are a legal class of persons who expose what they reasonably believe to be unlawful activity to a person or entity that has the power to correct that wrongdoing. A number of laws at both the federal and state level protect whistleblowers from retaliation.  These protections exist because whistleblowers often expose fraud or other unlawful activity that would otherwise remain undisclosed.  The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration, for example, enforces the anti-retaliation provisions of twenty-two different statutes that protect employees in the private sector. The United States Office of Special Counsel enforces the Whistleblower Protection Act, which covers most, but not all, civilian employees of the federal government. In recent years, whistleblower protections have been extended, through the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, to employees of government contractors who disclose fraud or mismanagement related to a contract with the federal government. And in 2014, the Supreme Court extended the anti-retaliation provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to employees of contractors who provide services to publicly held companies.

But there are limits to the many protections that already exist for whistleblowers. The WPA, for example, specifically excludes members of the Intelligence Community. Members of the Intelligence Community are covered instead under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, which lacks an anti-retaliation provision. Even Presidential Policy Directive 19, which President Obama signed in October 2012 to provide some protection from retaliation to those serving in the Intelligence Community, fails to provide a private right of action to an aggrieved employee. And in recent years, there have been a number of cases involving whistleblower retaliation in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Fourth Circuit Holds that Suit Alleging Racial Discrimination Does Not Bar Later Suit for Unlawful FRSA Retaliation

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Lee v. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co., 802 F.3d 626 (4th Cir. 2015), held that a plaintiff who alleged his suspension resulted from racial discrimination was not barred from claiming in another lawsuit that his employer suspended him as retaliation for refusing to ignore safety regulations, in violation of the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA).

In Lee, the defendant, Norfolk Southern Railway, suspended the plaintiff, Charles Lee, for six months in 2011 for allegedly consuming beer on the job. Lee’s duties for Norfolk Southern included inspecting rail cars for possible safety hazards. Lee sued Norfolk Southern under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, alleging that his suspension resulted from racial discrimination. According to Lee, his white supervisor consumed alcohol on the job and did not face adverse consequences. Lee also alleged that his white co-workers received promotions under a collective bargaining agreement while his African-American co-workers did not, and he claimed that he faced harassment because of his race. Lee eventually lost that lawsuit on summary judgment.

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OSHA Encourages Nationwide Adoption of “Early Resolution” ADR in Whistleblower Cases

On August 18, 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released a directive to its regional offices to adopt “early resolution” alternative dispute resolution in whistleblower cases.  The directive follows a successful pilot program by OSHA in its Chicago and San Francisco regions.

From October 1, 2012, to September 30, 2013, OSHA ran a pilot ADR program in regions V (Chicago) and IX (San Francisco).  The program provided two options for settling disputes: (1) an “early resolution” process offering parties the assistance of a “neutral, non-decision-making OSHA whistleblower expert;” and (2) a one-day, in-person mediation with a “professional third-party mediator.”

OSHA found the early resolution process a “very effective and viable alternative” to the normal OSHA investigative process.  As a result, OSHA is expanding the pilot program to all of its regional offices, though OSHA did leave regional offices the choice to offer parties additional ADR options.
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Recent Actions Highlight OSHA’s Role in Enforcing Whistleblower Anti-Retaliation Laws

The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is known for its role in implementing and enforcing safety standards in workplaces across the United States. But another main role played by OSHA is its enforcement of the whistleblower anti-retaliation provisions of a number of statutes, including but not limited to: The Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Clean Air Act, the Surface Transportation Safety Act, and the Federal Railroad Safety Act. Several recent actions by OSHA demonstrate the seriousness with which OSHA enforces these statutes.

On August 4, 2015, OSHA announced that it filed suit against Continental Alloys and Services, Inc., a Houston-based company which provides steel for oil and gas companies, for violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s whistleblower provision. In this case, a former employee filed a complaint for wrongful termination after Continental fired her, allegedly because she complained that the company failed to log workplace injuries in violation of OSHA regulations.  The whistleblower reported several instances when the company failed to log injuries, and even recorded a meeting with the company official who failed to record the injuries in order to gather evidence for an internal investigation. Continental fired her as a result of her actions. In its suit, OSHA seeks an injunction barring further retaliation, and reinstatement, back pay, and any other damages suffered by the whistleblower.
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Adverse Action Extends to Employee Sent Home to Obtain Medical Release

On March 20, 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board affirmed an Administrative Law Judge’s holding in Jackson v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., finding that an adverse action extends to an employee sent home to obtain a medical release.

On August 29, 2011, Union Pacific Railroad switchman/brakeman Michael A. Jackson reported to his manager a foul smoky odor in Union’s freight yard outside Avondale, Louisiana. When Jackson, because of health and safety concerns, requested assignment to an area free from smoke, his supervisor told Jackson to go home and return to work only after obtaining a medical release.

On December 1, 2011, Jackson filed a complaint with the DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, seeking damages because he had been temporarily suspended from work after raising health and safety concerns.

Concluding that Union violated the Federal Railroad Safety Act’s whistleblower protection provision, an ALJ awarded Jackson compensatory damages. The ARB, affirming OSHA’s decision, determined that Jackson engaged in protected activity when he reported safety concerns concerning foul smoky air to his manager.

The ARB’s finding—that Jackson was constructively discharged because he did not ask to go home—likely has broad implications for employees who face adverse actions for reporting health and safety concerns. The ARB’s decision affirms that the health and safety of our nation’s workforce is a top priority.

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Adverse Action Extends to Employee Sent Home to Obtain Medical Release

On March 20, 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board affirmed an Administrative Law Judge’s holding in Jackson v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., finding that sending an employee home to obtain a medical release can constitute an actionable adverse employment action.

On August 29, 2011, Union Pacific Railroad switchman/brakeman Michael A. Jackson reported to his manager a foul smoky odor in Union’s freight yard outside Avondale, Louisiana. When Jackson, because of health and safety concerns, requested assignment to an area free from smoke, his supervisor told Jackson to go home and return to work only after obtaining a medical release.

On December 1, 2011, Jackson filed a complaint with the DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, seeking damages because he had been temporarily suspended from work after raising health and safety concerns.

Concluding that Union violated the Federal Railroad Safety Act’s whistleblower protection provision, an ALJ awarded Jackson compensatory damages. The ARB, affirming OSHA’s decision, determined that Jackson engaged in protected activity when he reported safety concerns concerning foul smoky air to his manager.

The ARB’s finding—that Jackson was constructively discharged because he did not ask to go home—likely has broad implications for employees who face adverse actions for reporting health and safety concerns. The ARB’s decision affirms that the health and safety of our nation’s workforce is a top priority.

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Sixth Circuit Rules that Job Applicants not Covered by Whistleblower Statutes

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently ruled that federal statutes do not protect a job applicant from retaliation by a prospective employer based on whistleblowing at a previous employer. The decision puts the Court at odds with long-standing agency interpretation of the Energy Reorganization Act (ERA) by the Department of Labor (DOL), as well as assumptions underlying decisions in several other federal circuit Courts of Appeals. Gary Vander Boegh worked for the Department of Energy (DOE) for many years as landfill manager at the Paducha Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PDGP) under WESKEM, LLC, a subcontractor to Bechtel Jacobs Company (BJC). While working for WESKEM, Vander Boegh engaged in a range of protected whistleblowing, including reporting environmental violations. In 2005, DOE awarded the PGDP contract to Paducah Remediation Services, LLC (PRS). EnergySolutions subcontracted with PRS to provide waste management services. Vander Boegh applied to EnergySolutions to remain the landfill manager, but EnergySolutions hired another candidate. Vander Boegh filed a complaint against BJC, PRS, and EnergySolutions with DOL, alleging retaliation for prior protected conduct in violation of six federal statutes.

After the Sixth Circuit remanded a previous appeal by Vander Boegh, the district court again granted summary judgment to the one remaining defendant, EnergySolutions, holding that Vander Boegh lacked standing because he was an applicant and not an employee of EnergySolutions. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed, finding that Vander Boegh lacked standing under the ERA and the False Claims Act (FCA), and that the court thus did not have subject matter jurisdiction over Vander Boegh’s claims under four other federal environmental statutes: The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), 42 U.S.C. § 300j-9(i); the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. § 1367; the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), 15 U.S.C. § 2622; and the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA), 42 U.S.C. § 6971.

In its opinion filed on November 18, 2014, the Sixth Circuit noted that the Third Circuit had “assumed, without deciding, that applicants are employees under the ERA,” but declined to follow the Third Circuit’s reasoning. Vander Boegh argued that the term “employee” is ambiguous and the Court should thus apply Chevron deference to DOL’s interpretation of the term in the ERA and adopt the agency’s long-standing interpretation. But the Court reasoned that since the term “employer,” but not “employee,” was defined in the statute, it should be guided by the dictionary definition of “employee.” With that reasoning, the Court endorsed the following definitions of “employee” under the ERA: “[s]omeone who works in the service of another person (the employer) under an express or implied contract of hire, under which the employer has the right to control the details of work performance,” and “[a] person working for another person or a business firm for pay.”

The Court concluded that, by these definitions, Vander Boegh was not an employee because he never worked for EnergySolutions. It added that Congress had included, in its ERA definition of employer, “applicants” for Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses, indicating that had it intended to include applicants within the definition of “employee,” it would have. The Court added that courts should “presume Congress intended a term to have its settled, common-law definition” absent a contrary indication in the statute.

But the Court did not address two other viable theories of statutory interpretation. The first is that Congress simply failed to define the term “employee” in the ERA, thus creating a statute with ambiguous language. The accepted doctrine of Chevron deference to agency interpretation in such instances would carry no weight if Congress intended Courts to defer to dictionary or common law definitions when faced with unintended ambiguity. The second possibility – that Congress knowingly left the term undefined, expecting the agency to use its discretion in defining it – even more strongly supports Chevron deference.

The Court also failed to engage DOL’s reasoning for including applicants within the definition of “employees.” In Samodurov v. General Physics Corporation, the DOL Office of Administrative Appeals stated, “It is well established that the ERA covers applicants for employment.” The DOL reasoned that “[a] broad interpretation of ‘employee’ is necessary to give full effect to the purpose of the employee protection provision, which is to encourage reporting of safety deficiencies in the nuclear industry.” In Vander Boegh, the Sixth Circuit did not address either the DOL’s long-standing and settled interpretation of employee under the ERA, or DOL’s reasoning based on the congressional intent underlying the statue.

Finally, in addition to the Third Circuit opinion cited but not followed by the Court, other circuits have assumed that applicants are protected under the anti-retaliation provision of the ERA. The Fifth Circuit applied a three-part test to decide whether job applicants were protected under the ERA in Williams v. Administrative Review Board. In Hasan v. Department of Labor, the Tenth Circuit upheld the dismissal of an applicant’s claim under the whistleblower provision of the ERA, but not because the plaintiff was an applicant. Like the Fifth Circuit in Williams, the Tenth Circuit laid out the elements the applicant needed to show to sustain a claim under the act. At least three other circuits have thus deferred to DOL’s determination that applicants are within the definition of employee under the ERA.

For these reasons, the Sixth Circuit’s limited reading of “employee” under the ERA (and, by extension, other federal whistleblowing statutes) to exclude applicants is unlikely to be followed by other circuits.

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Department of Labor Administrative Review Board Upholds Compensatory Damages Award Based on Unrebutted Psychiatrist Testimony

On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor Administrative Review Board ruled that a pilot was entitled to compensatory damages for retaliation by Continental Airlines for his protected refusal to fly a plane without an inspection.

The 2014 ARB decision upheld the determination made by an administrative law judge on remand from a previous ARB decision. On January 31, 2012, the ARB had affirmed the earlier ALJ decision, which found that Continental Airlines retaliated against Roger Luder. However, in its 2012 decision, the ARB held that the ALJ had improperly granted both back and front pay to Luder and remanded the case to determine the proper amount of damages.

Luder’s claims date back to 2007, when he and a co-pilot were scheduled to fly a Continental flight from Miami to Houston. Before departure, Luder’s co-pilot informed him that the plane had experienced turbulence during the previous flight that had gone unreported. Federal regulations require that planes be inspected after experiencing turbulence. Accordingly, Luder insisted that the plane be inspected prior to taking off and wrote a log entry regarding the turbulence.

As a result, Continental temporarily suspended Luder and issued him a “termination warning” letter citing “unprofessional behavior.” Luder eventually claimed to suffer from an array of ailments arising from the retaliation, and claimed those ailments caused him to fail a flight simulator test and be disqualified from flying.

Luder brought the suit under the whistleblower protection provision of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, also known as AIR 21, and its implementing regulations, 29 C.F.R. Part 1979 (2013). The ARB has authority to issue final agency decisions under AIR 21. The November 3, 2014 decision on damages was ARB Case No. 13-009.

The 2012 ARB decision had determined that Luder’s actions constituted protected activity under AIR 21 and that Continental’s suspension of Luder constituted an adverse action. The ALJ had awarded Luder compensatory damages for posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression resulting from Continental’s retaliation for his refusal to fly an uninspected and potentially damaged plane. The ALJ relied on testimony by Luder and a psychiatrist, Dr. Shaulov. The ARB remanded to the ALJ for determination, under a preponderance of the evidence standard, that the retaliation caused the harm.

The ALJ entered a Recommended Decision and Order on Remand, determining that Luder proved that the retaliation caused his psychiatric condition that prevented him from returning to work. The ALJ found “ample support for causation . . . when the entire record, including the credible testimony of Dr. Shaulov, Dr. Jorgenson, and Luder, is considered.”

A dissenting opinion in the ARB’s recent 2014 decision argued that a judge should still examine undisputed expert testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 for “sufficient facts or data that properly applied reliable principles and methods,” but stopped short of advocating a Daubert hearing.

The Employment Law Group® law firm has an extensive nationwide whistleblower practice representing employees who have been victims of retaliation, including employees in the airline industry.

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Federal District Court in New York Holds that Retaliation under FRSA is Governed by AIR 21’s Burden-shifting Framework

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York recently denied summary judgment in a suit filed by Robin Young against his former employer, CSX Transportation. Young alleged that CSX violated the Federal Rail Safety Act’s anti-retaliation provisions when it fired him after it was informed that he had filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Young’s complaint to OSHA alleged that CSX told him to “refrain from providing extensive testimony about related safety issues” during a formal hearing with the Federal Railroad Administration; and then fired him because he refused to comply with this order.

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