Michael Lowery v. CSX Transportation, Inc.
UNPUBLISHED PER CURIAM OPINION filed. Originating case number: 1:14-cv-00788-JFM. Copies to all parties and the district court. . [16-1634]
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UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
Plaintiff - Appellant,
CSX TRANSPORTATION, INC.,
Defendant - Appellee.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore.
J. Frederick Motz, Senior District Judge. (1:14-cv-00788-JFM)
Submitted: April 12, 2017
Decided: May 26, 2017
Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and THACKER and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.
Vacated and remanded by unpublished per curiam opinion.
P. Matthew Darby, H. David Leibensperger, BERMAN, SOBIN, GROSS, FELDMAN &
DARBY, L.L.P., Lutherville, Maryland, for Appellant. Jacqueline M. Holmes, Thomas
R. Chiavetta, JONES DAY, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.
Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit.
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Michael Lowery filed this action against CSX Transportation, Inc. (“CSX”), under
the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”), alleging that CSX retaliated against him for
engaging in protected activity. Lowery was suspended after being charged with violating
workplace jewelry guidelines and making a false statement.
According to Lowery,
however, he was in fact suspended in retaliation for reporting various unsafe workplace
conditions. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of CSX. Lowery now
appeals, arguing that the district court: (1) employed the wrong legal standard in granting
summary judgment; (2) erred in concluding that the relevant decision-makers had no
knowledge of his protected activities; and (3) impermissibly required Lowery to submit
proof of disparate treatment.
“We review the district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the
same standard as the district court . . . [and] construing the evidence in the light most
favorable to . . . the non-movant.” Walker v. Mod-U-Kraf Homes, LLC, 775 F.3d 202,
207 (4th Cir. 2014). “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that
there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment
as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).
In order to establish a retaliation claim under the FRSA:
a 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.
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Conrad v. CSX Transp., Inc., 824 F.3d 103, 107 (4th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks
and brackets omitted). “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.” Id.
(internal quotation marks omitted). “The ‘knowledge’ relevant for a retaliation claim
under the FRSA must be tied to the decision-maker involved in the unfavorable personnel
action.” Id. at 108.
Lowery undoubtedly engaged in protected activities, and his suspension
constituted an unfavorable personnel action.
Lowery’s three safety reports in 2010
qualified as protected activities under the FRSA. Although CSX argues that Lowery’s
2011 reports regarding the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad (“W&LE”) and the Demmler
Yard incidents did not qualify as protected activities, the FRSA does not require only a
violation of a federal law, rule, or regulation; it also protects employees who “report, in
good faith, a hazardous safety or security condition.” Conrad, 824 F.3d at 107 (quoting
49 U.S.C. § 20109(b)(1)(A) (2012)). We therefore conclude that both incidents related to
hazardous safety conditions.
Second, Lowery adequately demonstrated that the relevant decision-makers were
aware of his protected activities. Three decision-makers arguably were involved in
adverse action against Lowery: Terminal Trainmaster Eric Koelker made the decision to
charge Lowery with rules violations regarding the jewelry policy and making a false
statement; Trainmaster Seth Fowler conducted the disciplinary hearing; and Division
Manager John Wright made the ultimate decision finding Lowery guilty of making a
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false statement. Regardless of whether the decision-makers possessed direct knowledge
of Lowery’s protected activities, knowledge may be tied to all three decision-makers
through Trainmaster Ron Baer under the cat’s paw theory. See Staub v. Proctor Hosp.,
562 U.S. 411, 421 (2011) (discussing theory); Conrad, 824 F.3d at 107-08 (adopting
holding in Rudolph v. Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp., ARB Case No. 11-037, 2013 WL
1385560, at *11-12 (Dep’t of Labor Mar. 23, 2013), that knowledge is imputable to
decision-makers under cat’s paw theory). Thus, a plaintiff “need not prove that the
decision-maker responsible for the adverse action knew of the protected activity if it can
be established that those advising the decision-maker knew, regardless of their motives.”
Rudolph, 2013 WL 1385560, at *12.
Baer had contact with all three decision-makers. Viewing the facts in the light
most favorable to Lowery, he reported directly to Baer two of the 2010 safety issues,
Baer knew about the December Yard incident, having discussed the issue directly with
Lowery, and Baer advised all three decision-makers as to the issue of whether Lowery
had made a false statement, a major rules violation.
Furthermore, Baer directly
participated in the decision-making process through his testimony at the disciplinary
hearing. Baer’s testimony proved to be critical to Fowler’s recommendation that Lowery
be found guilty of making a false statement and to Wright’s ultimate determination of
Moreover, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Lowery, some evidence
suggests that Baer’s testimony was the result of retaliatory animus, and, thus, a genuine
issue of material fact should have precluded summary judgment on this point. For
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example, deposition testimony established that local managers, a group that included
Baer, were displeased with Lowery’s safety push and reports.
Baer also expressed
exasperation at Lowery’s activities and advised employees to stay away from Lowery and
other union representatives. 1 Additionally, Baer’s testimony arguably was influenced by
Ray Morriss, the head of the Cumberland Terminal where Lowery worked and Baer’s
immediate supervisor. Morriss had direct knowledge of Lowery’s protected activities,
held clear animosity toward Lowery, and believed that Lowery was a liar. Athough Baer
acted only as a witness at the disciplinary hearing, his testimony sufficiently imputes his
knowledge to the decision-makers who relied on that testimony. See Staub, 562 U.S. at
422 (“[I]f the independent investigation relies on facts provided by the biased
supervisor—as is necessary in any case of cat’s-paw liability—then the employer (either
directly or through the ultimate decisionmaker) will have effectively delegated the
factfinding portion of the investigation to the biased supervisor.”). 2
As to the final element of the prima facie case, we conclude that a genuine issue of
material fact exists as to whether Lowery’s protected activities were a contributing factor
to the unfavorable personnel action. See Feldman v. Law Enf’t Assocs. Corp., 752 F.3d
We assume for the purposes of this appeal that the disputed testimony is
admissible as nonhearsay or under various hearsay exceptions. Neither party has
submitted sufficient evidence or argument to determine definitively whether the contested
statements are in fact admissible, and we therefore leave that determination to the district
court in the first instance. Nevertheless, even if we were to exclude any contested
testimony, we still would conclude that sufficient evidence supports a prima facie case.
We do not believe the case on which CSX relies, Kuduk v. BNSF Railroad Co.,
768 F.3d 786 (8th Cir. 2014), is to the contrary.
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339, 348 (4th Cir. 2014) (discussing what constitutes a contributing factor). 3 We note
that Lowery established he received greater discipline than other employees who violated
CSX’s jewelry policy. 4 See Laing v. Fed. Exp. Corp., 703 F.3d 713, 719 (4th Cir. 2013)
(“[C]omparator evidence . . . [is] a particularly probative means for discerning whether a
given adverse action was the product of a discriminatory motive.”).
viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Lowery, temporal proximity supports a
conclusion of retaliatory animus, as Lowery was charged with the rule violations 16 days
after the W&LE incident occurred and only 1 day after the Demmler Yard incident
occurred. Koelker’s testimony on the timing of the charges also supports an inference of
retaliatory animus. 5 We therefore conclude that Lowery has established a prima facie
case of retaliation under the FRSA.
CSX nevertheless argues that, even if Lowery established a prima facie case of
retaliation, the district court’s judgment should be affirmed on the alternate ground that
CSX demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that it would have disciplined
Lowery absent the protected activity.
“[C]lear and convincing has been defined as
Feldman addressed a retaliation claim under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which
employs the same standard as an FRSA claim. Conrad, 823 F.3d at 107.
Although CSX focuses on the false statement charge as the relevant conduct, the
charge for the alleged jewelry violation also qualifies as an unfavorable personnel action.
See 49 U.S.C. § 20109(a), (b) (railroad carriers “may not . . . reprimand, or in any other
way discriminate against an employee” for engaging in protected activity).
We recognize that the testimony on this point is in dispute. However, we must
view the evidence in the light most favorable to Lowery for the purposes of summary
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evidence of such weight that it produces in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or
conviction, without hesitancy, as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established.”
Jimenez v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 269 F.3d 439, 450 (4th Cir. 2001) (ellipsis and
internal quotation marks omitted). We conclude that CSX has not produced sufficient
evidence to satisfy this burden, and we therefore decline to affirm the court’s judgment
on that alternate ground. 6
Accordingly, we vacate the district court’s judgment and remand for further
proceedings consistent with this opinion. We dispense with oral argument because the
facts and legal contentions are adequately presented in the materials before this court and
argument would not aid the decisional process.
VACATED AND REMANDED
Because we vacate for the reasons outlined above, we do not address Lowery’s
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