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Wittig v. CSX Transportation, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Sabannah Division.

May 17, 2017




         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Jeffrey Wittig's ("Plaintiff") Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 24) and Defendant CSX Transportation, Inc.'s ("Defendant") Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 29) . The motions have been fully briefed and are now ripe for the Court's review. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 29) is DENIED and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 24) is DENIED.


         Defendant is a railroad-carrier corporation providing services throughout the United States. Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 2. Plaintiff worked as an engineer for Defendant at all times relevant in the Complaint. Id. ¶ 9. On June 10, 2014, Plaintiff was the engineer of a train leaving Savannah, Georgia and traveling to Cayce, South Carolina. Plaintiff was accompanied by his conductor, Martin Hester ("Hester"), who administered the operation of the train. Dkt. No. 25 p. 1. Plaintiff was responsible for the actual operation of the train. Dkt. No. 29-4 p. 34-37. Defendant's trains utilize speed-management software called a "Trip Optimizer." Dkt. No. 29-3 ¶ 9. The Trip Optimizer works in essentially the same fashion as a cruise-control device and is designed to keep the train at a set speed. Id. ¶ 10. However, like a cruise-control device, the Trip Optimizer may be turned off and on at the user's discretion. Ld. ¶ 9.

         On the day in question, Hester had used the Trip Optimizer to regulate the train's speed. Dkt. No. 29-5 pp. 15-17. Nonetheless, Plaintiff was still required to ensure the train did not exceed its speed limitations. Dkt. No. 29-4 p. 15. In addition, company regulations provided that the Trip Optimizer should not be the primary method of operating the train, but a supplemental method. Dkt. No. 29-3 ¶ 12. Nonetheless, Plaintiff was required to use the speed optimizer. A speed restriction of 10 mph existed starting just after the beginning of Savannah River Bridge. Dkt. No. 29-3 ¶ 15. Both Plaintiff and Hester were aware of this speed restriction. Dkt. No. 29-4 p. 37; Dkt. No. 29-6 pp. 32-33. A warning board[1] existed two miles before the low-speed zone which reminded both Plaintiff and Hester of this restriction. Dkt. No. 29-4 p. 12; Dkt. No. 29-6 p. 59. Hester informed Plaintiff that the Trip Optimizer accounted for the 10-mph limit. Dkt. No. 29-4 p. 37; Dkt. No. 29-6 p. 60. The train did begin to slow within the next two miles, but not at the rate needed to meet the impending speed restriction. Dkt. No. 29-6 p. 60. Indeed, the train failed to slow to the required speed limit. Plaintiff applied the brakes prior to reaching the speed-restricted zone, but only reduced the speed to 23 mph. Dkt. No. 29-4 p. 38; Dkt. No. 29-6 pp. 73-74.

         On June 11, 2014, Plaintiff and Hester reported to their supervisor that the Trip Optimizer had malfunctioned, such that the train had entered a speed-restricted zone 13 mph over the speed limit and the brakes had been forcibly applied. Dkt. No. 29-6 pp. 73-74. After an administrative hearing reviewing the incident, both Plaintiff and Hester were suspended. Dkt. No. 29-1 p. 9. Plaintiff now asserts that Defendant retaliated against him for reporting a safety violation under the Federal Rail Safety Act ("FRSA"). Dkt. No. 25 p. 2.


         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) . To satisfy this burden, the movant must show the court that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Id. at 325.

         If the moving party discharges this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of fact does exist. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 257 (1986) . The nonmovant may satisfy this burden in two ways: First, the nonmovant "may show that the record in fact contains supporting evidence, sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion, which was 'overlooked or ignored' by the moving party, who has thus failed to meet the initial burden of showing an absence of evidence." Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1116 (11th Cir. 1993) (quoting Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 332 (Brennan, J., dissenting)). Second, the nonmovant "may come forward with additional evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion at trial based on the alleged evidentiary deficiency." Id. at 1117.

         Where the nonmovant instead attempts to carry this burden with nothing more "than a repetition of his conclusional allegations, summary judgment for the defendants [is] not only proper but required." Morris v. Ross, 663 F.2d 1032, 1033-34 (11th Cir. 1981). When, as here, the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment, the applicable Rule 56 standard is not affected. See Gerling Glob. Reinsurance Corp. of Am. v. Gallagher, 267 F.3d 1228, 1233-34 (11th Cir. 2001). "[T]he facts are viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party on each motion." Chavez v. Mercantil Commercebank, N.A., 701 F.3d 896, 899 (11th Cir. 2012).


         Both parties now move for summary judgment on the issue of whether Defendant retaliated against Plaintiff for reporting a safety violation. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that he was suspended because he reported the malfunctioning Trip Optimizer and is protected as a "whistleblower" under the FRSA. Dkt. No. 25. p. 2. Defendant, on the other hand, argues that Plaintiff's suspension was unrelated to his report of the possibly faulty Trip Optimizer. Dkt. No. 41. p. 4. Instead, Defendant argues Plaintiff was suspended for failing to prevent violations of Defendant's safety policies. Id.

         The FRSA prohibits a railroad from retaliating against an employee for, among other things, reporting a work-safety condition. 49 U.S.C. § 20109(b)(1)(a). To establish a retaliation claim under the FRSA, a plaintiff must show: (1) engagement in protected activity; (2) discharge or discrimination in the terms or conditions of employment; and (3) that the protected activity was a contributing factor in the adverse employment action. Majali v. United States Dep't of Labor., 294 F.App'x 562, 566 (11th Cir. 2008); see also Allen v. Admin. Rev. Bd., 514 F.3d 468, 475-76 (5th Cir. 2008) (stating as a separate element of the prima facie case that the employer must be aware that the employee engaged in protected activity). If the employee establishes a prima facie case of retaliation, the burden then shifts to the employer to prove by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same unfavorable personnel action in the complete absence of the plaintiff's protected activity. Majali, 294 F.App'x at 566-67. The plaintiff's protected activity is a "contributing factor" in the unfavorable personnel action if it tended to affect the outcome of the decision. Consolidated Rail Corp-, v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 567 F.App'x 334, 337 (6th Cir. 2014); see also Ameristar Airways, Inc. v. Admin. Rev. Bd., 650 F.3d 562, 567 (5th Cir. 2011).

         In this case, there is no question that Plaintiff engaged in a protected activity. Nor is there a question as to whether he was subject to an adverse employment action. Instead, the issue is whether or not that engagement in the protected activity actually contributed to his suspension. There is no question that reporting a hazardous safety condition is protected by the FRSA. 49 U.S.C. § 20109(b)(1)(a). This does not mean, however, that Plaintiff could not be suspended for failing to prevent that condition. The Trip Optimizer was not a device that was completely out of the control of Plaintiff. Dkt. No. 29-3 ¶ 9. Instead, the device functions much in the same way as a cruise-control device works on a car. Like the driver of a car, the Plaintiff was not absolved of his responsibilities to operate a vehicle safely simply because the equivalent of cruise-control was turned on. Plaintiff himself testified as much in his deposition, stating: "When I'm on the train and [the Trip ...

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