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Smith-Bunge v. Wis. Cent., Ltd.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

October 8, 2014

Todd Smith-Bunge, Plaintiff,
v.
Wisconsin Central, Ltd., Defendant

Page 1035

Jeff R. Dingwall, Esq., Law Office of Jeff R. Dingwall PLC, San Diego, CA and James Lavoie, Esq., Lindell & Lavoie, Minneapolis, MN for Plaintiff.

Holly M. Robbins, Esq., Littler Mendelson, PC, Minneapolis, MN for Defendant.

Page 1036

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

ANN D. MONTGOMERY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

I. INTRODUCTION

On August 27, 2014, the undersigned United States District Judge heard oral argument on Plaintiff Todd Smith-Bunge's (" Smith" ) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [Docket No. 23] and Defendant Wisconsin Central Ltd.'s (" Central" ) Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket No. 45]. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's motion is granted and Defendant's motion is denied.

II. BACKGROUND

Central is a rail carrier. Since Smith began working for Central in 2008, he has worked in a number of positions, including welder, night crew foreman and mobile mechanic. Smith Dep. [Docket No. 27] Attach. 2 at 15-22, 50 (filed under seal).

In 2012, Central disciplined Smith with a 15-day suspension without pay for failure to report a low-back injury on the same day it occurred, as required by Central's injury reporting rules. Smith initially believed that his 2012 back pain was caused by an aggravated 2009 back injury. Because Smith did not know until after an MRI was complete that his 2012 back pain constituted a new injury, Smith argues that Central's discipline of him for filling out an injury report--six days after the 2012 incident and at Central's request--violated his rights under the Federal Rail and Safety Act (FRSA).

A. The Federal Rail and Safety Act

The FRSA aims to " promote safety in every area of railroad operations and reduce railroad-related accidents and incidents." 49 U.S.C. § 20101. The FRSA was amended by Congress in 2007 to broaden protection for railroad workers by including anti-retaliation measures. Araujo v. N.J. Transit Rail Operations, Inc., 708 F.3d 152, 156 (3d Cir. 2013). The FRSA now prohibits railroad employers from discriminating against employees who report work-related injuries. 49 U.S.C. § 20109(a)(4). Specifically, the statute states that an employer:

" may not discharge, demote, suspend, reprimand, or in any other way discriminate against an employee if such discrimination is due, in whole or in part, to the employee's lawful, good faith act done, or perceived by the employer to have been done or about to be done . . ." to, among other things, report or attempt to report a work-place injury. Id.

B. Central's Injury Reporting Policy

Central established internal injury reporting rules to promote employee safety and to ensure Central's compliance with reporting obligations required by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Def.'s Mem. Supp. Summ. J. [Docket No. 47] 3-4 (citing 49 U.S.C. § 20901; 49 CFR 225.1, 225.5, 225.11 and 225.19). The primary rule promulgated by Central and at issue in this case is United States Operating Rule (" USOR" ) D, which states:

Employees must report promptly to the proper authority any injury sustained on duty or on company property. Notification of the injury must be made prior to the end of the employee's tour of duty and before leaving company property.

Weinstein Aff. [Docket No. 48] Ex. D. Smith and other Central employees receive classroom training and testing on the

Page 1037

USORs every two years. Def.'s Mem. Supp. Summ. J. at 3.

Central defines a report as a " notification to the proper authority" and " injury" as " any injury or suspected injury that is incurred on duty or on company property." Interrog. Ans. No. 10 [Docket No. 27] Attach. 15 at 8. A report must be made of all new injuries and any " significant aggravation of a preexisting condition . . . ." Central's Reporting Guide [Docket No. 27] Attach. 22 (filed under seal). A preexisting condition is significantly aggravated and reportable under the FRA if it requires the employee to take one or more days away from work or change medical treatment necessitated by the workplace event or exposure. Id.

C. Smith's 2009 Injury

Smith suffered his first work-related injury in 2009, when he slipped on taconite pellets and injured his low back. Def.'s Mem. Supp. Summ. J. at 11, n. 3.[1] Despite medical treatment, physical therapy and pain medications, Smith continued to experience recurrent low-back pain. Smith Med. Rec. [Docket No. 27] Attach. 4 (filed under seal). Smith managed the recurrent pain with exercises recommended by his doctor and prescription pain medication. Id.

Smith reported his 2009 injury the day after it occurred. Smith explained, " I just thought I'd pulled my back. It wasn't until the next morning that I realized that I injured it when I went to the doctor." Smith Dep. 45:18-25. Because Central's internal policies require employees to report injuries " promptly . .., prior to the end of the employee's tour of duty and before leaving company property," ...


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