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Fields v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 31, 2015



R. BARCLAY SURRICK, District Judge.

Presently before the Court is the Defendant's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16). For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion will be granted.


This is an employment-related action brought pursuant to the Federal Railroad Safety Act ("FRSA"), 49 U.S.C. § 20101 et seq. Plaintiffs independently bring claims under § 20109 against Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority ("SEPTA"). Their claims arise out of employment discipline assessed against them in connection with a railway work accident.

A. Factual Background

In 2011, Plaintiff Terry Fields and Plaintiff Russell King were both employed by SEPTA as track general helpers. (Fields Dep. 7, Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. "B"; King Dep. 9-11, Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. "A.") As workers on the railroad, Fields and King received regular safety and hazard training under the Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee ("NORAC") Rules, a set of standards adopted by SEPTA.[1] (Fields Dep. 13; King Dep. 15.) Plaintiffs independently acknowledged the importance of safety on the jobsite, and the responsibility to voice concerns of any safety hazards. (Fields Dep. 14; King Dep. 16, 57-58.) These rules include a right-to-challenge rule. The right-to-challenge rule requires SEPTA employees to report, and indeed challenge their working conditions, where any unsafe condition is seen that may jeopardize the safety of employees. (Fields Dep. 55.) Employees may be disciplined for failing to challenge their working conditions where an unsafe condition is present. (Craig Dininny Dep. 34, 37-39, Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. "H.") Conversely, the right-to-challenge rule provides that no employee may face discipline for reporting or challenging an unsafe working condition.

During the relevant time of their employment with SEPTA, Fields and King were both members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters Union. (Fields Dep. 9-11; King Dep. 9-10.) As members of the union, they were subject to a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") which included a progressive discipline policy. (CBA 14-15, Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. "J.") The progressive discipline policy includes stages of discipline that are implemented prior to an employee's discharge. The progressive stages are: documented verbal warning; written warning; one-day administrative suspension; three-day suspension, which includes one day without pay; and discharge. ( Id. ) Progressive discipline begins anew after an employee goes without any discipline for 730 consecutive days. ( Id. at 15.)

On May 18, 2011, Fields and King, along with other SEPTA employees, were assigned to repair a section of the railway along the regional rail airport line. (Fields Dep. 28-29; King Dep. 37.) Two trucks were used to service the railway, a "boom truck" (a large, high-rail vehicle used to maneuver heavy rail segments) and a "gang truck" (a smaller high-rail vehicle used to transport workers and their tools). Fields was a passenger in the gang truck, and King was a passenger in the boom truck. (Fields Dep. 31-32; King Dep. 10-11.) It was raining that day, and the railway was wet. (May 19, 2011 King Statement, Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. "E.") After positioning the vehicles on the railway, the larger boom truck followed the gang truck down a steep decline. (Fields Dep. 31; King Dep. 37.) The gang truck came to a rest at the bottom of the decline. The boom truck, however, was unable to stop, slid down the railway, and crashed into the gang truck. (Fields Dep. 31; King Dep. 37.)

King did not suffer any personal injury in the May 18, 2011 incident. (King Dep. 34.) In addition, he did not report any damage to the boom truck. ( Id. at 41.) Fields, however, sustained an injury to his back. (Fields Dep. 22-23.) He also suffered emotional distress and mental anguish related to sustaining the injury and living with it on a daily basis. ( Id. at 100.) Fields eventually brought a personal injury claim against SEPTA. ( Id. at 94.) That claim was ultimately settled, compensating Fields for his injuries. ( Id. ) After an investigation, SEPTA did not issue any discipline to any worker for the incident. (Craig Dininny Dep. 14, Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. "F.")

On the evening of July 26, 2011, Fields and King were again assigned to the same section of railway, with largely the same crew members and trucks from the May 18, 2011 incident. (Fields Dep. 39, 52; King Dep. 44-45.) It was "raining hard" that night. (King Dep. 74.) King was driving the boom truck with Fields as his passenger. (Fields Dep. 39; King Dep. 44-46.) After placing the boom truck on the railway behind the gang truck, both trucks proceeded towards the steep declined stretch of railway. (Fields Dep. 38-39.) Although the conditions and circumstances were similar to those of the May incident, neither Fields nor King challenged the plan to drive the boom truck down the decline of the railway. King was unable to stop the boom truck, and crashed into the back of the gang truck. ( Id. ) Neither Fields nor King reported any injuries as a result of this crash.[2] (Fields Dep. 45, 98; King Dep. 47.) Neither Fields nor King brought any claim for injuries with regard to the July 26 accident.

SEPTA conducted an investigation into the cause of the July 26, 2011 crash. (John Rowan Dep. 34-36, Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. "I.") That investigation resulted in discipline assessed against both Fields and King. The discipline stemmed from the fact that the July 26, 2011 crash was nearly identical to the May 18, 2011 crash, and that both Fields and King were involved in both accidents.

Fields was assessed with a violation of worker rules for failing to challenge an unsafe assignment. (Fields Dep. 71-72; July 29, 2011 Report of Interview (Fields 1 of 2), Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. "K.") He also received a violation of worker rules for being an accident-prone employee. (Fields Dep. 80; July 29, 2011 Report of Interview (Fields 2 of 2), Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. "L.") The violation for failing to challenge an unsafe working condition was Fields' first level of discipline, and so he was given a written record of a verbal warning. (Fields Dep. 71-73.) Fields' violation for being accident-prone was the second violation on his record. For that he received the second step of progressive discipline, a written warning. ( Id. at 79-80.) Even though he received discipline for the July 26, 2011 incident, Fields did not receive any reduction in his position, work responsibilities, compensation, and/or benefits. ( Id. at 81, 86.) There were no other negative repercussions from these warnings on his record. Fields' record remained clear for the next two years. ( Id. at 80.) Under SEPTA policy, the warnings Fields received from the July 26, 2011 incident were expunged from his record because he did not receive any discipline for that two year period. ( Id. at 98-99.)

King also received discipline as a result of the July 26, 2011 incident. After the investigation, King was cited with a violation for failing to operate a work vehicle at a restricted speed, and a violation for contributing to the cause of an accident. (July 29, 2011 Report of Interview (King), Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. "M.") Unlike Fields, King had four prior violations on his record during the prior two-year period. (King Dep. 19-20, 24-25, 28-29, 30-33.) Based upon the two violations received for the July 26, 2011 incident, King was at the progressive stage of discharge. ( Id. at 60.) Nevertheless, SEPTA and King's Union agreed to a compromise that permitted King to remain employed as a track general helper, and he was placed at the same level of progressive discipline as he was prior to the July 26, 2011 incident. ( Id. ) King's record remained clear over the next two years, and his disciplinary record was wiped clean. ( Id. at 64-65.)

Fields, through his union, filed two grievances with regard to the discipline that he received. (Fields Dep. 90-92.) The one grievance, filed under his CBA, argued that the discipline that he received for failing to challenge the working conditions on July 26, 2011 was not a proper basis for discipline. ( Id. at 90-91.) SEPTA denied his grievance. (Fields' Grievance Form.) The union ultimately decided not to take the grievance to arbitration. (Fields Dep. 91-93.)

B. Procedural Background

King and Fields filed complaints with the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") on November 3, 2011. (OSHA Complaints, Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Exs. "N" & "O.") OSHA did not reach a final decision within 210 days after the filing of the complaints. King and Fields thereafter sought de novo review in this Court pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 20109(d)(3).

On April 30, 2014, Fields filed a Complaint against SEPTA, at Docket No. 14-2491. On July 28, 2014, King filed a Complaint against SEPTA at Docket No. 14-4493. The Complaints of both Fields and King allege that SEPTA violated the FRSA by imposing discipline on them as a result of their conduct related to the incidents of May 18, 2011 and July 26, 2011. They seek expungement of their disciplinary records related to the incidents and monetary damages. On September 10, 2014, we ordered the two cases consolidated under Docket No. 14-2491. (ECF No. 11.) On March 4, 2015, after the conclusion of discovery, SEPTA filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment. ...

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