BNSF Railway Co. v. LABR, No. 16-3093 (8th Cir. 2017)Annotate this Case
Clyde Carter, Jr. injured his shoulder and neck while working as a carman at BNSF Railway Company’s yard in Kansas City, Kansas. Carter immediately reported the injury to BNSF. The following year, he filed a Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) damage action, alleging that BNSF’s negligence caused his injury. BNSF’s discovery in defending the FELA lawsuit included a July 2009 deposition of Carter. In January 2012, as trial approached, a BNSF manager reviewed discovery materials provided by BNSF’s attorneys. He discovered discrepancies between Carter’s deposition testimony and information provided on his employment application and medical questionnaire submitted to BNSF in 2005. Thompson initiated a disciplinary investigation into potentially dishonest statements. Later, BNSF opened a second disciplinary investigation to determine if Carter signed a false statement that he arrived at work on time on February 5, 2012. The investigations culminated in two "on-property" evidentiary hearings, the conclusions of which found Carter committed dishonesty violations and recommended discipline in accordance with BNSF’s Policy for Employee Performance Accountability (PEPA). It was recommended Carter be terminated for dishonesty, a "stand alone" violation that could result in dismissal without regard to an employee's prior disciplinary history. Following termination, Carter filed an FRSA complaint with the Department of Labor, alleging that BNSF initiated the investigations leading to his dismissal in retaliation for Carter reporting the August 2007 work-related injury. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration dismissed Carter’s complaint, finding he committed the violations, and BNSF proved by clear and convincing evidence that "other employees who had not engaged in protected activity have been dismissed from service for dishonesty." Carter filed objections. After an evidentiary hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that BNSF violated 49 U.S.C. 20109(a)(4) and awarded reinstatement, back pay, attorneys’ fees, and $50,000 punitive damages. BNSF filed an administrative appeal. The Secretary’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) affirmed the ALJ. BNSF appealed. The Eighth Circuit found the ALJ's reasoning was based on a flawed interpretation of the FRSA; though the Administrative Review Board did not rely on the ALJ's chain-of-events causation theory, it affirmed based on findings which were either non-existent or insufficient to support the Board's contributing factor and affirmative defense rulings. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded with instructions.