A railroad trackman working in Illinois was unfortunately forced to experience just how far some railroad companies will go to retaliate against workers who were injured on-the-job. The worker, Justin Reed, finally had his case heard by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals who sided with the injured worker, saying that Norfolk Southern could not keep Reed’s Federal Railroad Safety Act claim out of court.
The issue began when Reed says he experienced severe stomach pain while at work. The incident occurred in April of 2009 and led Reed to contact a supervisor about his worsening condition. Reed says what happened next surprised him, as officials with the company pressured him into signing a statement saying that the injury did not occur as a result of his work with Norfolk Southern.
Reed ended up taking seven months of medical leave and, when he came back, he says he admitted to a Norfolk Southern claims agent that he did actually think his injury had been caused by his job. As soon as the company heard what Reed said, they fired him, claiming that his previously signed statement amounts to a troubling inconsistency. Moreover, the company said that Reed violated its policy of requiring workers to report injuries on the same day that they occur.
Reed challenged his firing by bringing a case before the Public Law Board, an arbitration panel for workers with grievances against their employers. At the same time that Reed brought his case before the arbitration board, he also filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern under the FRSA, claiming that he was fired in retaliation for revealing a workplace injury.
When the arbitration board found that Reed should have been rehired by Norfolk Southern, the company asked the federal district court to dismiss the FRSA lawsuit, claiming that the law contains a provision which says employees are not allowed to seek overlapping or duplicative relief and that the FRSA claim should be tossed out of court given the result of the arbitration.
Thankfully, the district court judge denied Norfolk Southern’s motion for summary judgment, saying that the required arbitration that Reed engaged in was part of a private collective bargaining agreement and not another provision of law. As a result, the arbitration could not be considered a second avenue for seeking remedies for the company’s retaliation.
Not content to let the matter alone, Norfolk Southern again appealed, all the way up to the Seventh Circuit. The Seventh Circuit heard arguments on the case and ultimately sided with the injured railroad trackman, rejecting Norfolk Southern’s attempt to have the lawsuit thrown out of court. The Seventh Circuit held that the arbitration agreement is not a provision of law and offers employees no real protection at all. As a result, Reed’s suit against Norfolk Southern for retaliation will be allowed to proceed, hopefully serving as an example to other railroad companies like BNSF, Amtrak and CSX that injured employees cannot be so easily cast aside.