Today, attorney Stephen Kohn (Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center) and I are filing an amicus brief with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB). The brief urges the ARB to affirm a decision of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in favor of Christopher Bala, a signalman for the PATH railway that carries commuters between New Jersey and New York City. As one of the first cases the ARB will address under the 2008 amendments to the Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA), this case could set the tone for railroad workers cases for years to come.

Christopher Bala suffered a back injury at home in June 2008. His doctor ordered him to rest and refrain from work through the end of the next month. PATH’s doctor agreed that he should not work. Still, his supervisor decided to launch a disciplinary hearing against him for violating PATH’s absenteeism policy. In October 2008, Congress amended the FRSA to protect rail workers when they follow their medical treatment plans. The 2007 version of the FRSA already protected rail workers who raise concerns about safety or refuse to perform duties they reasonably believe are unsafe. Notwithstanding the change in the law, PATH proceeded with the disciplinary hearing against Bala. PATH eventually found him guilty of absenteeism and imposed a suspension. Bala complained to OSHA which ruled in his favor. PATH requested a hearing, and the ALJ again found that PATH violated the FRSA by imposing discipline on Bala. The ALJ held that the FRSA protects rail workers when they follow medical treatment plans for injuries that occurred on or off the job.

On appeal to the ARB, PATH has argued that the FRSA was only meant to encourage workers to report on-the-job injuries. PATH ignores portions of the congressional record showing that Congress wanted to reduce the number of rail accidents. PATH is asking the ARB to adopt an interpretation of the FRSA that would add a limitation that is not in the words Congress used. PATH is also asking to be exempt from the FRSA in cases where the disciplinary process was started before the effective date of the 2008 amendments to the FRSA. The Association of American Railroads (AAR), submitted its own amicus brief supporting PATH. It argued, without supporting data, that the ALJ’s holding would impose costs on railroads, and go against the holdings of arbitrators and courts applying other laws.

The NWC amicus focuses on the plain language of the FRSA which explicitly protects railroad workers when they are following medical treatment plans. The brief reviews the legislative history behind the FRSA and shows that members of Congress wanted to save lives by reducing accidents. The brief explains how the FRSA fulfills the safety purpose by preventing management from pressuring workers to work when their medical condition could make them impaired. The brief sets out how similar laws for truck drivers (STAA) and airline workers (AIR21) protect them when they refuse to work due to medical impairments. The NWC amicus challenges the AAR’s claims about costs, and the holdings of courts under other laws. It challenges the PATH brief for arguing that it should be allowed to continue its discipline of Bala even after the FRSA was amended to make that discipline unlawful.

I am particularly pleased to submit this amicus brief in one of the first cases under the new FRSA. Corporate fraud whistleblowers suffered for years when the ARB’s initial decisions under the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) required a high standard for whistleblowers to win. The ARB finally abated that problem in last year’s Sylvester case. With a good decision for Bala, rail workers may find the protection they need to avoid untold future accidents.  For that, we will all be safer.