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CONRAD v. CSX TRANSP., INC., NO. 15-1035

Decided: May 25, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court decision granting of summary judgment in favor of CSX, in which the district court concluded that Conrad had failed to show that any CSX employee involved in the disciplinary process had also known about his union activities.

Appellee CSX Transportation, Inc. charged one of its employees, Appellant William M. Conrad, with “serious” violations of the company’s safety policy.  Alleging he was disciplined in retaliation for his activities as local chairman of the transportation union, Conrad sued in federal district court under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”), 49 U.S.C. § 20109.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of CSX, concluding that Conrad had failed to show that any CSX employee involved in the disciplinary process had also known about his union activities.  Conrad appealed the district court’s decision.  On appeal, Conrad argued that knowledge of an employee’s protected activities may be imputed to the decision-makers if any supervisory employee at the company knew of the subordinate employee’s protected activity when the decision-maker took the unfavorable personnel action, regardless of whether the person with knowledge played a role in the disciplinary process.  The Fourth Circuit disagreed with this argument.

Congress enacted the FRSA to promote safety in every area of railroad operations and reduce railroad-related accidents and incidents.  To that end, the FRSA prohibits railroads from discriminating against employees who engage in certain safety-related activities.  An an action brought under the FRSA, the plaintiff must project sufficient admissible evidence to establish that: (1) the employee engaged in a protected activity; (2) the employer knew that the employee engaged in the protected activity; (3) the employee suffered an unfavorable personnel action; and (4) the protected activity was a contributing factor in the unfavorable action.  If the employee establishes a prima facie claim, then the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the employer would have taken the same personnel action in the absence of the protected activity.  The district court concluded that Conrad could not prove the second prong, that CSX knew that he had engaged in the protected activity.  The Fourth Circuit concluded that the “knowledge” relevant for a retaliation claim under the FRSA must be tied to the decision-maker involved in the unfavorable personnel action.  As the district court concluded, Conrad failed to show that such knowledge existed here.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision that Conrad’s claims fail as a matter of law at the prima facie stage.

Full Opinion

Katie E. Lowery