Wednesday, August 17, 2016

10th Circuit Rules Truck Driver's Termination for Abandoning Trailer in Freezing Cold was in Violation of STAA Whistleblower Provision

Alphonse Maddin was employed as a truck driver for TransAm Trucking ("TransAm").  In January 2009, Maddin was transporting cargo through Illinois when, at 11pm, he pulled over to the side of the highway because he was unable to find the TransAm-mandated fuel station and his gas gauge was below empty.  When he attempted to pull back onto the road 10 minutes later, he discovered the brakes on the trailer had locked up because of the frigid temperatures.  Maddin reported the frozen brakes to TransAm and was advised that their road assist service would be sent out to him.  While waiting for the road assist, Maddin discovered that his auxiliary power unit was not working and there was no heat in the cab of the truck.  Maddie eventually fell asleep waiting for the road assist but was awakened by a phone call at 1:18am.  When Maddin sat up, his torso and feet were numb from being in the cold temperatures.  Maddie then contacted dispatch who told him to, "hang in there."

About 30 minutes after Maddin's second phone call to road assist, Maddin became worried about continuing to wait in the freezing cold without heat and decided to unhitch his trailer from the truck.  Maddie called his supervisor and informed him he was leaving to seek help but was told to either drag the trailer with its frozen brakes, or remain with the trailer until the road assist arrived.  Maddin followed neither instruction and drove off, leaving the trailer unattended.  Maddie was then terminated for abandoning his trailer.

After his termination, Maddin filed a complaint with OSHA, asserting TransAm violated the whistle-blower provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act ("STAA") when they fired him.  OSHA dismissed Maddin's complaint and Maddin then requested a hearing in front of a Department of Labor ALJ.  The ALJ issued a decision ruling Maddin was terminated in violation of the STAA, finding Maddin engaged in protected activity when he reported the frozen brake issue to TransAm and again when he refused to obey his supervisor's instruction to drive the truck while dragging the trailer with frozen brakes.  The ALJ then awarded Maddin backpay from the date of his discharge to the date of his reinstatement, along with Maddin's per diem travel allowances, which the ALJ concluded were part of his compensation.

TransAm appealed the ALJ's decision to the Administrative Review Board ("ARB") who affirmed the ALJ's decision.  TransAm then appealed ARB's decision to the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

The STAA Claim

The STAA prohibits an employer from discharging an employee because the employee "has filed a complaint or begun a proceeding related to a violation of a commercial motor vehicle safety or security regulation, standard, or order."  TransAm challenged the ARB's conclusion that "uncorrected vehicle defects, such as faulty brakes, violate safety regulations and reporting a defective vehicle falls squarely within the definition of protected activity under STAA."  TransAm argued that Maddin's report of frozen brakes is not a complaint of the type the STAA seeks to protect because Maddin was simply communicating a concern about defective brakes, a condition that in and of itself does not constitute a violation of any statute or regulation.  The 10th Circuit held that this issue can be affirmed under an alternative provision of the STAA which makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge an employee who "refuses to operate a vehicle because ... the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle's hazardous safety or security condition."

TransAm next argued that because Maddin drove the truck after being instructed to "stay put," that he actually operated his vehicle and the ARB erred in concluding his conduct fell within the "refusal to operate" provision of the STAA.  The term "operate" is not defined by statute and so the 10th Circuit gave "Chevron deference" to ARB's interpretation of the term "operate" to not be coextensive with the term "drive."

Finding ARB's interpretation of "operate" to be a permissible construction of the statute, the 10th Circuit also concluded ARB's finding that Maddin engaged in STAA-protected activity when he unhitched the trailer and drove off in the truck is supported by substantial evidence.

The 10th Circuit also upheld the backpay award.

The case is TransAm Trucking, Inc. v. Department of Labor, No. 15-9504 (Tenth Circuit August 8, 2016).

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