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Mercier v. United States Department of Labor

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

March 2, 2017

Michael Mercier Petitioner
United States Department of Labor, Administrative Review Board Respondent Union Pacific Railroad Company Intervenor

          Submitted: November 15, 2016

         Petition for Review of an Order of the Department of Labor (except OSHA)

          Before COLLOTON, BEAM, and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges.

          BEAM, Circuit Judge.

         Michael Mercier petitions for review of the final decision and order of the Department of Labor's Administrative Review Board (ARB), which affirmed the Department of Labor's Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), in Mercier's Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA) retaliatory termination action. We deny the petition for review and affirm the ARB's final decision and order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts were developed at the three-day hearing in front of the ALJ. Mercier worked for Union Pacific Railroad (UP) in Valley Park, Minnesota, for a number of years. Mercier was an engineer, trainer, and union representative, and in the course of representing employees for the union during disciplinary hearings, and at other various work times, Mercier pointed out a number of perceived safety violations throughout his employment at UP. Mercier believes this ongoing practice of reporting safety violations brought him within the ire of management, and he alleges that he was unfairly disciplined on a number of occasions. Some of these disciplinary actions were overturned when reviewed by a neutral board at a later time. Mercier's superintendent testified that Mercier did indeed report on a number of safety violations but that UP generally responded to Mercier's safety reports in an effort to keep the workplace safe. The superintendent also noted that Mercier had, on occasion, been recognized and rewarded for his safety reporting.

         In June 2007, Mercier exchanged a series of text messages with coworker Michael Thomas. Mercier alleges the substance of the texts was regarding the rumor that Thomas was involved in an extramarital affair with a female coworker, Deana Symons. Symons, on the other hand, alleged that shortly after she was hired as a student conductor in March 2007, Mercier began speaking to coworkers about her and insinuated that she was having sexual relations with several coworkers. Thomas showed Symons the texts he had received from Mercier. While the exact content of the texts is not in the record, both Thomas and Symons testified that the essence of the messages was that Mercier asked who was "doing the student" and offered to buy that person some "sex powder." Symons contacted Mercier directly to tell him that she considered his conduct to be harassing, and that he should stop. Shortly thereafter, in early July 2007, Symons also reported the text-messaging incident to the Equal Employment Office (EEO) hotline. Mercier contends he was merely trying to ward off the workplace strife that might ensue due to the alleged extramarital affair between Thomas and Symons. The UP EEO manager, Melissa Schop, investigated and confirmed the existence of the offensive text messages.

         UP subsequently charged Mercier with an EEO violation and removed him from service, which was effectively a suspension, pending the outcome of an investigation and EEO hearing. During his suspension, Mercier went to Symons's home and took photos of Thomas visiting her house. Thomas and Symons both testified that Thomas was there to help Symons prepare for the upcoming EEO hearing. Symons testified that Mercier's "drive by" left her feeling scared and frightened, and she was unsure how Mercier had discovered where she lived.

         Before the EEO hearing could take place, Mercier's union representative and Mercier's superintendent struck a deal allowing Mercier to return to work as long as he signed a "waiver" agreement. The conditions of this agreement were that Mercier admitted violating the EEO policy, and agreed that if he had any future EEO violations, he would waive a hearing and be immediately terminated. Mercier was also required to take an EEO class, write Symons an apology, and refrain from discussing the underlying EEO incident while at work or in any way retaliating against her or Thomas. Thus, after a thirty-day unpaid suspension and meeting the preconditions, Mercier returned to work in August 2007.

         Symons expressed displeasure upon finding out that Mercier would return to work. Symons objected to Mercier's "apology" which she felt was not sincere, as the apology did not express acceptance of responsibility, but instead only expressed remorse at being caught. The leader of Mercier's EEO training session also told Schop that Mercier's attitude and statements at EEO training were a concern. In mid- October, Mercier told another UP employee that Thomas had showed him (Mercier) a pair of Symons's underwear and Mercier commented on the size and color of the underwear. This employee asked Thomas if this was true, and Thomas denied having shown Symons's underwear to Mercier or anyone else. This employee ultimately reported the incident to Schop. Also in October, Symons reported to Schop that yet another coworker told her Mercier was complaining that Symons had falsely accused Mercier of harassment. Schop contacted this coworker via telephone, and the coworker confirmed what Symons had told Schop. During the month of October 2007, Symons made phone calls and sent emails to Schop detailing her strong concern with Mercier's actions in the workplace, and her growing fears of him. Thomas reported to Schop that Mercier had been calling him a rat, and noted a derogatory message posted to the union website which obliquely referenced the summer EEO incident wherein Mercier was suspended.

         Schop testified that while investigating whether a violation of Mercier's waiver agreement had occurred, she became increasingly concerned about Symons's anger and frustration with UP over the handling of the situation. Schop stated that her number one concern was that the work environment was free of discrimination and retaliation for both Symons and Thomas. Also, Schop feared that Symons would ultimately hire a lawyer and file suit against UP if it did not take prompt effective action to remedy known harassment. Because the actions UP had previously taken against Mercier did not seem to work, and because she believed Mercier had violated the waiver agreement, in late October, Schop determined that UP needed to terminate Mercier's employment.

         On November 5, 2007, UP officially terminated Mercier for violating the waiver agreement. Mercier contested the dismissal through the union procedures, and a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) arbitration was scheduled about the matter. Although UP's counsel was concerned about the strength of UP's arbitration case, counsel testified that there were three reasons why UP defended the arbitration (rather than simply returning Mercier to work): it believed Mercier committed retaliation in violation of the waiver agreement; it wanted to support female workers like Symons; and it was concerned Symons herself would file an EEO charge against the company if Mercier continued on the job. Ultimately, the arbitrator ruled in favor of Mercier, who returned to work, after all of the arbitration proceedings and appeals, on April 1, 2010.

         On March 27, 2008, before his eventual reinstatement, Mercier filed the current FRSA complaint with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), alleging that his termination for violating the waiver agreement was really a pretext for retaliation against him for the numerous times he reported safety issues. OSHA dismissed the complaint, finding that a preponderance of the evidence indicated that Mercier's protected activity was not a contributing factor in the incident. Mercier appealed this ruling and requested a hearing in front of an ALJ. UP moved for summary decision because some of the protected activity at issue in this case occurred before the latest (August 3, 2007) amendments to the FRSA, [1] and thus UP argued that Mercier was barred from pursuing both the FRSA complaint and the CBA labor arbitration, and due to lack of jurisdiction. The ALJ denied this motion, finding that since termination occurred after August 3, 2007, there was jurisdiction over the action, and because of the amendments, Mercier was not required to elect between remedies. Further, because of FRSA's 180-day statute of limitations, 49 U.S.C. ยง 20109(d)(2)(A)(ii), Mercier could only challenge his termination (and not any of the earlier discipline) because he filed his petition in March 2008. The 180-day period extended back only to September 2007. However, the ...

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