United States District Court, D. Minnesota
Hungerford, Esq., Matthew H. Morgan, Esq., Nicholas D.
Thompson, Esq., and Nichols Kaster, PLLP, counsel for
R. Mitchell, Esq., and David J. Koob, Esq., and Donna Law
Firm, P.C., and Thomas A.P. Hayden, Esq. and Union Pacific
Railroad Company Law Department, counsel for defendant.
S. Doty, Judge United States District Court
matter is before the court upon the parties' cross
motions for summary judgment. After a review of the file,
record, and proceedings herein, and for the following
reasons, the court denies the motions.
employment dispute arises out of plaintiff Elona Koonce's
resignation from her position as a bridge tender for
defendant Union Pacific Railroad Company (UP). UP hired
Koonce on February 18, 2014. Koonce was responsible for
opening and closing a swing bridge to allow river and rail
traffic to pass as needed. Koonce trained with experienced
bridge tenders for several weeks before UP placed her in the
field. Koonce Dep. at 34:11- 36:23, 45:13-23. Although she
had other options, Koonce ultimately chose to work the night
shift - 12:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. - at Bridge 15 in St. Paul.
Id. 42:12-43:20. She had no concerns about doing so,
even though she understood she would be alone during her
shift. Id. at 33:11-34:10.
15 is located in a secluded wooded area accessible by private
road. Id. at 71:15-72:19. Koonce worked in a
“bridge shack, ” located in the middle of the
bridge. Id. at 45:24-46:4. The bridge shack
contained the controls for the bridge, a CB radio, a laptop,
a space heater, and a telephone. Id. at 46:5-47:2.
The telephone worked only occasionally, and Koonce and the
other bridge tenders often relied on their cell phones.
Id. at 48:1-50:12. According to Koonce, UP was aware
that the telephone was unreliable. Id. at 59:8-20.
Mark Watlington, Koonce's supervisor, denies knowing that
the telephone did not work properly. Watlington Dep. at
handle lock on the door to the bridge shack broke soon after
Koonce began working alone at night. Koonce Dep. at 52:15-24;
Watlington Dep. at 28:8-9. Another employee reported the
broken lock to UP. Koonce Dep. at 53:17-20. UP asserts that
the bridge shack also had a deadbolt, which Koonce denies.
Koonce Dep. at 47:11-16; Watlington Dep. at 28:3-9. The
broken lock concerned Koonce given the bridge's
isolation, her late hours, and the fact that transients
frequent the area. Koonce Dep. at 63:7-15, 72:10-19.
after Koonce started working on her own at night, and while
the lock was broken, two male employees from another railroad
startled her by appearing at the bridge shack door without
notice. Id. at 64:14-65:17. They asked to come into
the bridge shack, but Koonce told them to go back to their
train. Id. at 66:2-22. The next morning, Koonce told
Watlington about the incident and requested a new lock on the
door. Id. at 68:14-69:2. According to Koonce,
Watlington told her he would take care of it. Id. at
68:3-5. Watlington testified that he had the lock fixed soon
after he learned it was broken, but he does not recall when
that occurred. Watlington Dep. at 28:3-24.
following night, a man drove to the bridge, got out of his
car, and stared at the bridge shack. Koonce Dep. at
76:14-77:5. Koonce was concerned that he would walk onto the
bridge, so she opened the bridge to prevent him from doing
so. Id. at 77:7-18. Koonce knew that she would need
to close the bridge eventually to allow a train to cross,
however. Id. at 80:2-24. After she opened the
bridge, the man screamed and swore at her. Id. at
77:19-23. The phone in the bridge shack was not working, so
Koonce called the police from her cell phone. Id. at
77:23-25. Due to confusion over whether St. Paul or Mendota
Heights had jurisdiction over the bridge shack, the police
were never dispatched. Id. at 78:4-14. In the
meantime, the man had gotten back in his car and pulled into
the weeds next to the road. Id. at 78:18-24. Koonce
then called her husband who came to the bridge and stayed
there until the end of her shift. Id. at 78:15-79:7.
her shift, Koonce reported the incident to Watlington. She
again requested a new lock on the door and told him that she
would not return to work until the new lock was in place or
UP assigned her to another bridge. Id. at
83:16-85:10. Koonce told Watlington that a more senior male
bridge tender, who also worked the night shift, offered to
switch bridge assignments with her. Id. at 85:12-21;
Watlington Dep. at 52:7-24. Watlington refused to allow the
switch, however, and instead told Koonce that her option was
to switch shifts with another female, who was then on the day
shift, or to resign. Koonce Dep. at 86:25-87:12; Watlington
Dep. at 31:19-32:11. Believing that the bridge was unsafe for
any female employee given recent events, Koonce felt she had
no choice but to resign. Koonce Dep. at 87:6-12; Mitchell Decl.
Ex. B at 1.
later filed a union grievance seeking reinstatement without
success. Martindale Dep. at 15:12-16:12; Watlington Dep. at
74:18-24. Koonce then filed a complaint against UP with the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but later
elected to proceed in federal court pursuant to 49 U.S.C.
§ 20109(d)(3). Compl. ¶¶ 27-28. On June 11,
2015, Koonce filed the instant suit against Union Pacific,
alleging retaliation in violation of the Federal Rail Safety
Act (FRSA). Both parties now move for summary judgment.