Eighth Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment in Favor of Railroad

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the railroad on the plaintiffs’ claims under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”), 49 U.S.C. § 20109. The three plaintiffs claimed the railroad retaliated against them for engaging in protected activities under the FRSA. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa granted summary judgment in favor of the railroad on the plaintiffs’ claims, finding the plaintiffs failed to exhaust administrative remedies, did not engage in a protected activity under the FRSA and any alleged protected activity was not a contributing factor to their claimed adverse actions.

The case arises out of an incident where the plaintiffs’ coworker was injured during a crew change. Following the incident, all of the employees involved were disciplined for rule violations. The plaintiffs alleged they were disciplined and suffered other adverse actions for reporting various work conditions after the incident occurred.

In its recent decision, the Eighth Circuit held the District Court correctly found the plaintiffs failed to exhaust administration remedies and that the non-exhausted claims were properly dismissed on the merits. The Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument they did not have to exhaust administrative remedies under the FRSA. The plaintiffs’ claims of adverse actions related to increased testing and taking positions that paid less were not raised in their OSHA Complaint and were not allegations that flowed naturally from the Complaint. Regarding the plaintiffs’ protected activities, the Court found the plaintiffs failed to exhaust claims related to their statements to the railroad’s claims department.

On the merits of the plaintiffs’ remaining claims, the Court found the plaintiffs’ handwritten statements regarding the work conditions to the trainmaster were not reports of a violation of any federal law, rule or regulation under Section 20109(a)(1) because they failed to state that the railroad knew about the conditions or that they failed to remedy a known condition. While these statements were reports of hazardous safety conditions under Section 20109(b)(1)(A), the plaintiffs explicitly abandoned any claims under that section of the FRSA. The statements made at the investigation hearing for discipline were not a contributing factor to any alleged adverse action. First, these statements were given after the railroad initiated the investigation. Second, there is no evidence connecting these statements to plaintiff’s discipline or dismissal. The Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments they did not actually violate the rules and that their protected activity and adverse actions were “inextricable intertwined.” See Heim v. BNSF Railway Company, 849 F.3d 723, 727 (8th Cir. 2017). Summary judgment in favor of the railroad was proper.

Foster et al. v. BNSF Railway Company, 866 F.3d 962 (8th Cir. 2017).