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Koonce v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 1, 2016

Elona Koonce, Plaintiff,
Union Pacific Railroad Co., Defendant,

          Jason Hungerford, Esq., Matthew H. Morgan, Esq., Nicholas D. Thompson, Esq., and Nichols Kaster, PLLP, counsel for plaintiff.

          Daniel 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.


          David S. Doty, Judge United States District Court

         This 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.


         This 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.

         Bridge 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 27:11-15.

         The 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.

         Soon 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.

         The 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.

         After 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.[1] Koonce Dep. at 87:6-12; Mitchell Decl. Ex. B at 1.

         Koonce 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.


         I. ...

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