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Williams v. Illinois Central Railroad Co.

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

February 5, 2018




         Before the Court is Defendant Illinois Central Railroad Company's Motion for Summary Judgment. The Motion is fully briefed and ready for adjudication.[1]

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Marcus Williams is a unionized locomotive engineer who has worked for Illinois Central Railroad Company (IC) since 1998.[2] As a unionized employee, Williams is subject to the “CN US-2-15 Attendance Guidelines for Unionized Employees.” The Guidelines categorize absences as excused or unexcused. For excused absences, an engineer of Williams' seniority is entitled annually to four weeks of paid vacation, 11 paid personal leave days (PLDs), 12 weeks of family medical leave (FMLA) for serious medical conditions, bereavement leave, and extended medical leave for medical absences lasting five days or more. Excused absences require advance approval.

         The Guidelines define an unexcused absence as any absence other than (1) approved absence(s) for family or medical leave pursuant to FMLA or similar state leave laws, (2) approved medical leaves of absence, and (3) any absence or leave as long as proper approval has been granted. The policy mandates that an employee be disciplined for unexcused absences if, during any 12-week period, he meets the following thresholds:

a. More than two occurrences of any duration; b. More than three total work days missed; or c. More than one occurrence that is on a holiday, immediately before a holiday, or immediately after a holiday, rest day, personal leave day, vacation day, or FMLA day.

         In 2014, Williams had repeated attendance violations for exceeding the Guidelines' threshold of unexcused absences. In accordance with IC's progressive disciplinary policy, Williams received (1) a letter of caution for a violation occurring on March 7, 2014; (2) a five-day suspension for a violation occurring on August 28, 2014; and (3) a 15-day actual suspension and 30-day deferred suspicion for a violation occurring on December 18, 2014.

         In 2015, all of these prior violations were still active on his record because, per the Guidelines, Williams had not completed six months without any attendance violations. If Williams violated the Guidelines a fourth time without completing the six-month window, the next disciplinary action was dismissal.

         On the evening of June 12, 2015, Williams was assigned to work a yard-switching job in Jackson. As he was driving to work, he experienced multiple symptoms of a heart attack. He “had bad headaches and [felt] a little jittery, ” he recalled later. Docket No. 54-1 at 3.

         Soon after he began his shift, at approximately 8:00 p.m., Williams boarded his locomotive and felt worse. He was light-headed and had chest pains. Williams first told his conductor that he was not feeling well, and then called the yardmaster and said he needed to go to the hospital. Two IC officials arrived, assisted Williams into an IC truck, and drove him to the emergency room at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

         At UMMC, the emergency room doctors conducted a complete medical workup and concluded that Williams' symptoms were “likely anxiety/stress related.” Docket No. 59-4 at 1. More than six hours later, UMMC released Williams in the early morning hours of June 13, 2015. He was not prescribed any medication. But his medical records included instructions to follow up with his primary care doctor for evaluation of a preexisting pulmonary node noted during a CT scan. Williams was given a typed note that read, To Whom It May Concern:

Marcus Williams was seen and treated in our emergency department on 6/12/2105. He may return to work/school on 6/15/2015.

         If you have any questions or concerns, please don't hesitate to call. Docket No. 54-5 at 2. The letter was on the UMMC letterhead but was unsigned and did not reference the treating doctors.

         Later that evening, Williams called IC's Attendance Management Center (AMC) to report that he was sick and would not work his shift that evening. The next day-Sunday, June 14- was a “regular off day” but he noted that he had a “doctor's excuse to be off until Monday.” Docket No. 59-2 at 13. The AMC employee taking his call told Williams that the “absence would be considered when determining compliance with the attendance guidelines.” Id. at 14.

         IC held the June 13 absence against Williams. On June 17, 2015, AMC emailed Williams' supervisors to inform them that Williams had exceeded the threshold of unexcused absences during the 12-week period ending June 13, 2015. Specifically, Williams had more than two unexcused absences within the 12-week period and more than one absence that was on a holiday or immediately before or after a holiday, rest day, PLD, vacation day, or FMLA day. The email further stated that this was Williams' fourth attendance violation.

         That same day, Williams was issued a Notice of Investigation regarding his June 13, 2015 absence. Following a formal investigation hearing on June 24, 2015, William Noland, an IC superintendent, determined that Williams had violated the Guidelines. Based on Williams' three prior attendance violations, Noland decided that dismissal from employment was appropriate. On July 2, 2015, Noland wrote Williams to notify him that he was dismissed, effective that day.

         Williams appealed his termination to the Public Law Board (PLB), a tribunal that resolves disputes governed by the Railway Labor Act. On December 9, 2016, the PLB found that IC met its burden of proving Williams guilty of violating the Guidelines. Nevertheless, the PLB found that “circumstances in this particular case . . . mitigate[d] against permanent dismissal” and reinstated Williams without awarding back pay. Docket No. 54-6 at 3.

         On December 3, 2015, Williams filed a formal complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), asserting a claim against IC for violating the Federal Railway Safety Act (FRSA), 49 U.S.C. § 20109 et seq. When OSHA did not issue a final decision within 210 days, Williams commenced this action. 29 C.F.R. § 1982.114.

         Williams claims that IC violated two anti-retaliation provisions of the FRSA: § 20109(a)(4), which protects an employee who notifies an employer of a work-related injury or illness, and § 20109(c)(2), which protects an employee who follows the orders or ...

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