The SMART Transportation Division (SMART-TD), Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys (ARLA) have filed a joint motion and brief urging the United States Supreme Court to prevent railroads from seeking property damages from their employees who are involved in railroad accidents.
The joint amicus curiae brief was filed in the case of Melvin Ammons and Darrin Riley v. Wisconsin Central, Ltd. Following a 2014 derailment, Conductor Ammons and engineer Riley filed suit under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), claiming the carrier had failed to provide a safe place to work resulting in injuries to them. In its counter claim, Wisconsin Central blamed Ammons and Riley for causing the accident. The carrier further argued that the crew acted in a negligent manner and sought damages from the employees in excess of $1 million for damage to railroad property.
In their brief, SMART-TD, BLET and ARLA argue that to allow a railroad to recover property damages from employees following an accident is an unlawful device that permits the railroad to evade its own legal liability, and will create a potential catastrophe in the railroad industry because the safety-reinforcing purpose of FELA will be destroyed.
“No tactic by the railroads has more potential for destroying employees’ rights — the exclusive remedial recourse available to railroad employees — under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (‘FELA’ or the ‘Act’) than allowing a railroad to seek property damages from an employee arising out of an accident,” the group wrote in its amicus brief.
Congress created the FELA in 1908 with the “twin objectives of providing effective relief to railroad workers injured or killed because of their employer’s negligence and giving railroads an economic incentive to improve the safety of this nation’s railroads.” This remedial purpose was underscored by amendments to the Act in 1908 and numerous times thereafter.
The FELA prohibits a railroad from utilizing “any device whatsoever” to exempt itself from liability. SMART-TD, BLET and ARLA contend that seeking property damage from employees in the event of accidents is such a device, and one that would basically exempt railroads from liability.
It was explained to the Supreme Court that “[i]t was not the intention of Congress in enacting FELA, with the inclusion of ‘any device whatsoever,’ that by the device of a claim for property damages, a railroad may avoid financial liability for its negligence, collect damages from an employee or drive an employee to bankruptcy, and whether it be the collection of damages or employee bankruptcy, dissuade other employees from filing FELA claims.”
SMART-TD, BLET and ARLA also argue that allowing employees to be sued for property damages would jeopardize safety in the railroad industry and discourage future safety improvements. In its brief, the group wrote: “Congress’ purpose in enacting FELA was to shift the cost of the ‘human overhead’ of railroading from the injured employees to their railroad employers. Allowing railroads to offset their FELA liability by shifting these losses back to the employees through property damage claims frustrates that Congressional design and jeopardizes the safety of the nation’s rail system.”
Strength, unity and education will be the way to fight the United States Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last week on Janus v. AFSCME 31 that overturned more than four decades of legal precedent.
That was the message given at the opening session of the SMART Transportation Division Regional Meeting on July 1 in Seattle.
The 49-page decision written by Justice Samuel Alito and supported by the four other conservative justices eliminates the ability of public sector unions to collect agency fees from those employees who refuse to be union members, yet still receive the benefits negotiated by unions.
“Janus is something that is indicative of an anti-labor movement in certain parts of the government that they’re working very hard to take away the rights and privileges that we have worked for for a number of years,” SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich said.
SMART TD General Counsel Kevin Brodar explained to attendees the magnitude of the decision and how the conservative tilt of the court, achieved with the installation of President Donald Trump’s nominee Neil Gorsuch, poses an ongoing menace to labor.
“It is everything we thought it would be,” Brodar describe the Janus decision, written by Alito. “From every page drips his contempt for labor and unions. This is less a legal opinion as it is a right-wing manifesto against labor. That’s the sad story.
“Justice Alito and his Federalist Society conspirators are once again trying to sell the public on a two-century-old idea that organized labor is nothing more than legalized extortion. Having lost the battle of ideas over the years because unions are still here, they have taken the idea that they can strangle unions out of existence by ending their funding.”
Janus overturns the 9-0 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education made in the 1970s in which, Brodar said, “some of the heaviest hitters in the legal field” all agreed that unions had the power to collect agency fees from “free-riders,” non-paying members who still received benefits negotiated by the unions.
“This is essentially a green light to anyone who wants to stop paying unions dues in the public sector,” Brodar said. “The idea is to drain union coffers of their money, drain them of their political clout, drain them of the ability to represent their members. With that, disappears a decent wage, pension plans, health care — all gone. That’s the plan of this case.”
The Janus decision is another attack on the United States labor movement, Brodar said — the newest moment in a long line of resistance against people uniting for a common cause to improve their lives.
“This case is an attack on working people. It’s an attack not just on public sector unions, but all of us in this room. This is an attack on every member of this union,” Brodar said. “No matter how many bayonets and bullets they used, they couldn’t kill the idea. They couldn’t kill the cause. It exists today. Why is that? Because this is a righteous and just cause. And you, all of you here, are the heirs to that cause.”
The fight will continue, Brodar said, and he urged members to come together, educate themselves and be prepared to battle future efforts to weaken the power of labor and tip the scales in the favor of the carriers.
“This is not the last shot. There will be many more shots coming. It’s up to us to respond,” Brodar said.
“If this union disappears, there are dark days ahead. There are dark days right now — there will be another Supreme Court appointment who won’t be a labor-friendly guy.
“What we need is solidarity. It’s solidarity that brought us here,” Brodar said. “There’s work to be done, and it’s time.”
SMART TD General Counsel Kevin Brodar speaks out about what’s ahead for unions in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Janus v. Afcsme, overturning decades of union-favored precedent, at the opening session of the Seattle Regional Meeting, Monday, July 2.
Reuters reported that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 4-4 split decision, ruled in favor of public sector unions by preserving the legal precedent of agency fees, which are a vital source of cash for organized labor. Read the entire story here.
The following release was issued by the Environmental Law & Policy Center:
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court’s March 9 decision affirming Amtrak’s power to create on-time performance standards could get slumping Midwest arrival times back on track.
“This is a good Supreme Court decision that should help rail passengers across the country,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which filed an amicus curiae brief in the case. “For every passenger who has been delayed for hours in Northwest Indiana or outside of Cleveland while oil tanker cars slog by, today’s court decision can be an important step forward.”
The Association of American Railroads challenged a federal law that allows Amtrak to help set on-time performance standards for railroads, arguing that Amtrak is a private company rather than a government entity. The Supreme Court, agreeing with the Department of Justice and ELPC, held that Amtrak is more like a government entity.
The DC Court of Appeals had struck down a provision of the 2008 rail reauthorization bill that instructed the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak – consulting with the Surface Transportation Board, freight railroads, states, rail labor, and rail passenger organizations – to develop metrics and minimum standards for measuring Amtrak passenger train performance and service quality.
“Today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling settles that legal question,” Learner said. “Amtrak is a government entity. Given this ruling, the existing on-time performance standards should be enforced and passenger rail should again be given priority.”
In an amicus curiae brief filed by ELPC, on behalf of itself and the National Association of Railroad Passengers, All Aboard Ohio and Virginians for High Speed Rail, ELPC found that on-time arrival rates had suffered since the appeals court ruling. In 2012, Amtrak achieved a nationwide on-time performance rate of 83 percent. Since the standards were invalidated by the Court of Appeals, on-time performance fell to an abysmal 42 percent.
While this is a major victory for Amtrak passengers across the nation, the Supreme Court’s ruling does raise the possibility of a lengthy court fight should the Association of American Railroads seek to continually litigate other issues around on-time performance.
“The highest court in the land has spoken and we hope that freight railroads will move forward as a partner to improve passenger rail service across America,” added Learner.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court appeared divided Monday as it considered whether Amtrak, the government-owned passenger rail company, wields too much clout in setting regulations that private freight carriers also must follow.
The nine justices heard arguments in a challenge by the Association of American Railroads to a federal law that gives Amtrak, a government-owned corporation, a key role in setting standards for railroads, including for on-time performance.
Responding to increasingly serious delays across the national train network, the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), represented by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), will file an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief with the United States Supreme Court in the lawsuit between the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Association of American Railroads.
The brief will argue that a lower court was mistaken in ruling that it is unconstitutional for Amtrak to participate with the Federal Railroad Administration in setting performance standards. These metrics helped ensure that Amtrak’s trains – which operate on tracks owned by the private freight railroads – met minimum standards of service quality, and they were developed in conjunction with the Surface Transportation Board, freight railroads, states, rail labor, and rail passenger organizations. NARP believes that the recent decline in on-time performance by Amtrak trains is at least in part due to lower court’s ruling (U.S. Court of Appeals – D.C. Circuit; Association of American Railroads v. U.S. Department of Transportation, et al., No. 12-5204).
ELPC is undertaking the legal research and will file the brief on NARP’s behalf on a pro bono basis. The case is expected to be argued in late 2014 or early 2015, with a decision expected sometime after that.
“This is one of the most important issues NARP has ever tackled,” said NARP Chairman Robert Stewart. “The standards adopted by the government provided real protection for the train-traveling public. As a consumer organization representing railroad passengers, our primary responsibility is to ensure that the services provided meet the reasonable expectations people have for getting to their destinations on time and safely. NARP is deeply grateful to ELPC for their professional assistance in presenting our views to the Supreme Court.”
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court dealt a blow to public sector unions Monday, ruling that thousands of home health care workers in Illinois cannot be required to pay fees that help cover the union’s costs of collective bargaining.
In a 5-4 split along ideological lines, the justices said the practice violates the First Amendment rights of nonmembers who disagree with the positions that unions take.
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will hear an argument by CSX in 2011 challenging standards for rail workers bringing lawsuits under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), reports Bloomberg.
The decision could affect future FELA cases.
The specific case to be heard, reports Bloomberg, involves a CSX engineer who won a $184,250 FELA award for a hand injury suffered while on duty.
Said Bloomberg, “The case centers on the test for determining whether a railroad’s negligence was the cause of an employee’s injury.”
The federal judge hearing that case, reports Bloomberg, told the jury “that the railroad was responsible for negligence if its negligence ‘played a part — no matter how small — in bringing about the injury.'”
CSX, according to Bloomberg, contends that injured rail workers should meet a more demanding standard, as is required in other types of personal-injury lawsuits not covered by the FELA, which applies only to railroads and their workers.
The more demanding standard would require the employer’s action to be the “primary cause” of the injury, known as “proximate cause” in legal jargon.