Ronald Sweatt v. Union Pacific Railroad Compan
Filed Nonprecedential Disposition PER CURIAM. AFFIRMED. William J. Bauer, Circuit Judge; Frank H. Easterbrook, Circuit Judge and Michael S. Kanne, Circuit Judge. [6823243-1]  [16-1236]
To be cited only in accordance with Fed. R. App. P. 32.1
United States Court of Appeals
For the Seventh Circuit
Chicago, Illinois 60604
Argued January 24, 2017
Decided March 6, 2017
WILLIAM J. BAUER, Circuit Judge
FRANK H. EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judge
MICHAEL S. KANNE, Circuit Judge
UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD CO.,
Appeal from the United States
District Court for the Northern District
of Illinois, Eastern Division.
John Z. Lee,
O R D E R
Ronald Sweatt appeals the grant of summary judgment for his former employer,
Union Pacific, in his suit under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”), 49 U.S.C.
§ 20109. The district court concluded that Sweatt failed to properly exhaust his
administrative remedies before filing suit. We agree and thus affirm the district court’s
Sweatt repaired railroad tracks for Union Pacific from 2006 to 2009. He told the
company in December 2009 that he’d been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome,
a condition he attributed to his work on the railroad. Three years later his treating
physician, Dr. Robert Coats, recommended surgery, which Sweatt asked the company
to pay for. Union Pacific disputed that Sweatt’s carpal tunnel was work‐related and
declined his request in the summer of 2012.
In November 2012 Sweatt sued Union Pacific under the Federal Employers’
Liability Act (“FELA”), 45 U.S.C. § 51, a statute that makes railroad companies liable for
negligence resulting in workplace injuries. Sweatt contended that the FELA required
the company to pay for treating his carpal tunnel syndrome. The district court
dismissed Sweatt’s suit at summary judgment, concluding that the statute of limitations
already had run before Sweatt filed suit. This court affirmed. See Sweatt v. Union Pacific
R.R. Co., 796 F.3d 701, 707–08 (7th Cir. 2015).
In January 2014—shortly after Sweatt responded to Union Pacific’s motion for
summary judgment in his FELA suit—he filed an administrative complaint with the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, asserting that the company violated
the FRSA when it refused to pay for surgery for his carpal tunnel syndrome. The FRSA
prohibits a railroad company from retaliating against an employee for reporting a
workplace injury or seeking medical treatment. 49 U.S.C. § 20109(a–b). It also provides
that a railroad company “may not deny, delay, or interfere with the medical or first aid
treatment of an employee who is injured during the course of employment,” 49 U.S.C.
§ 20109(c)(1). In his complaint Sweatt pointed to Dr. Coats’s statement during an
August 2013 deposition that Sweatt’s carpal tunnel syndrome was work‐related, and
asserted that the company—by refusing to pay for surgery—had retaliated against him
and interfered with his medical treatment.
The Secretary of the Department of Labor did not issue a timely decision on
Sweatt’s complaint, so Sweatt brought this suit in federal court, reiterating that
Union Pacific violated the FRSA by refusing to pay for his surgery. See 49 U.S.C.
§ 20109(d)(3) (authorizing employee to sue in federal court if Secretary of Labor has not
issued final decision on administrative complaint within 210 days). The district court
eventually entered summary judgment for Union Pacific, concluding that the statute of
limitations barred Sweatt’s FRSA claim. As the court explained, Sweatt knew by the
summer of 2012 that the company would not pay for his surgery and yet he did not file
his administrative complaint until January 2014, long after the applicable 180‐day
deadline, see 49 U.S.C. § 20109(d)(2)(A)(ii).
On appeal Sweatt first challenges the district court’s determination that the
statute of limitations began to run in the summer of 2012, when Union Pacific first told
him it would not pay for his surgery.1 According to Sweatt, the statute of limitations
did not begin to run until August 2013, when Dr. Coats opined during a deposition in
his prior suit that the condition was work‐related, or October 2013, when the doctor
“executed a written order prescribing the necessary surgery.” (Appellant’s Br. at 18.) As
Sweatt sees it, because the company refused his initial request to pay for the surgery, he
had “to take the time to substantiate that he was engaging in a protected activity
seeking medical care prescribed by his doctor for a work‐related injury.” (Id. at 16.)
This explanation is nonsensical—Dr. Coats opined in December 2009 that
Sweatt’s carpel tunnel syndrome was work‐related, and Sweatt knew by the summer of
2012 that the company would not pay for the surgery because it disagreed with that
opinion. If Sweatt believed he had to further “substantiate” his position that his carpal
tunnel syndrome was work‐related before he could pursue a FRSA claim, he could have
presented the company with an affidavit from Dr. Coats in 2012, once he had notice that
the company disagreed with Dr. Coats’s opinion.
Next Sweatt argues that his administrative complaint was timely because the
statute of limitations reset in October 2013, when he renewed his request that Union
Pacific pay for his surgery. He invokes Groesch v. City of Springfield, 635 F.3d 1020, 1026
(7th Cir. 2011), in which this court held that every paycheck reflecting unlawful
discrimination constitutes a new cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Sweatt says that
the “rationale expressed in Groesch applies to the present case,” suggesting that a new
FRSA claim accrues whenever the company denies a request to pay medical bills. That
can’t be right—Union Pacific has maintained since the summer of 2012 that it is not
responsible for Sweatt’s medical bills, and he cannot toll the statute of limitations
indefinitely by making cumulative requests the company already has denied.
1 Throughout this litigation, Union Pacific has disputed that Sweatt’s complaint states a
claim under the FRSA, but has focused its efforts on explaining why Sweatt’s
administrative complaint was untimely. We therefore assume—without deciding—that
the allegations in Sweatt’s complaint could state a FRSA claim.
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