June 25, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Refusal to Operate Vehicle in Manner Directed by Supervisor Qualifies as Refusal to Operate

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in TransAm Trucking, Inc. v. Administrative Review Board on Monday, August 8, 2016.

Alphonse Maddin was driving a tractor-trailer for TransAm in sub-zero temperatures on I-88 in Illinois. He could not find the TransAm-approved gas station and his truck’s fuel meter was below E, so he pulled to the side of the highway. When he tried to pull back onto the road about 10 minutes later, he discovered his brakes were frozen and had locked up. He radioed TransAm’s road assist department and was advised that a repairperson would be sent to his location. He then discovered that his bunk heater was not working and there was no heat in the cab of the truck. He fell asleep while waiting for the repair person.

Approximately two hours later, Maddin’s cousin called him and woke him up. According to the cousin, Maddin’s speech was slurred and he sounded confused. When Maddin sat up, he realized his torso was numb and he could not feel his feet. He called road assist again to report that his bunk heater was not working, telling the dispatcher about his physical condition. The road assist dispatcher told him to stay where he was. About thirty minutes later, Maddin became concerned about continuing to wait in the freezing temperatures with no heat. He unhitched the trailer from the truck, pulled a few feet away, and called his supervisor, Larry Cluck, telling him he couldn’t feel his feet and was having trouble breathing because of the cold. Cluck told him not to abandon the trailer. Cluck advised Maddin that he could either drive off with the trailer or stay there and wait for the repairperson. Maddin drove off without the trailer. About 15 minutes later, the repairperson showed up and Maddin drove back to the trailer. When the truck was repaired, Maddin called Cluck for directions to the fuel stop. Cluck threatened to write Maddin up for missing his fuel stop or a late load. Later, Cluck informed Maddin that he was being written up for abandoning his trailer. He was terminated less than a week later for violating company policy by abandoning his load.

Maddin filed a complaint with OSHA, asserting TransAm violated the whistleblower provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) when it terminated him. After OSHA dismissed his complaint, Maddin requested a hearing with a Department of Labor ALJ. The ALJ concluded Maddin engaged in protected activity when he reported his defective vehicle to TransAm and again when he refused to obey Cluck’s order to either drive the defective vehicle or stay put. The ALJ found that the protected activity was inextricably intertwined with TransAm’s decision to terminate Maddin, and eventually awarded back pay from the date of discharge to the date of reinstatement, including a per diem allowance provided by TransAm. TransAm appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Administrative Review Board (ARB), which upheld the ALJ’s findings and backpay award. TransAm filed a petition for review in the Tenth Circuit.

TransAm first argued that frozen brakes are not the type of vehicle complaint contemplated by the STAA. The Tenth Circuit declined to resolve the question because the ARB’s decision could be affirmed under another aspect of the STAA also relied on by the ARB. The alternative provision makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge an employee who refuses to operate a vehicle due to safety concerns. TransAm argued that Maddin did not refuse to operate the vehicle since he drove away. The Tenth Circuit applied Chevron deference to the agency’s interpretation of the word “operate,” and found no authority to support that Congress intended to limit the word “operate” solely to driving. The ARB interpreted “operate” to encompass situations in which an employee refused to use a vehicle in the manner directed by the employer, and the Tenth Circuit majority approved of this definition. TransAm argued it would have been impossible for Maddin to drive off while the trailer’s brakes were frozen, so his refusal to drag the trailer could not have contributed to his termination because he could not “defy the laws of physics,” therefore it was not protected activity. The Tenth Circuit majority disagreed. The Tenth Circuit found ample evidence supporting the ARB’s causation finding.

TransAm also raised three challenges to the backpay award. First, it contended that the per diem allowances should not have been included, but the ARB found that because the allowances were paid whenever Maddin drove for TransAm and did not appear to be intended to offset expenses, they were properly included as lost earnings. TransAm argued that the per diems were intended to reimburse Maddin for expenses, but no record evidence supported its assertion. TransAm also challenged the ARB’s refusal to offset the backpay award for earnings from 2010 to 2012, arguing no evidence supported the ALJ’s finding that the income was less than Maddin’s incurred business expenses. The Tenth Circuit, however, noted that the ARB specifically referenced Maddin’s IRS tax records and a personal statement, both of which supported the ALJ’s finding. The Tenth Circuit also rejected TransAm’s argument that Maddin was not entitled to backpay with interest for the entire period between his termination and reinstatement, finding TransAm’s statements conclusory, self-serving, and unsupported.

The Tenth Circuit denied TransAm’s petition for review. Judge Gorsuch dissented; he would not have applied Chevron and instead would have relied on the dictionary definition of “operate” in determining whether Maddin operated the vehicle in defiance of his supervisor’s orders.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind

*