BNSF wins dismissal of former employee's whistleblower complaint in appeal from jury verdict
Clients BNSF Railway Company
On October 31, 2016, the Seventh Circuit overturned a jury verdict and dismissed a Federal Railroad Safety Act ("FRSA") retaliation claim brought by Michael Koziara, a former employee of Jones Day client BNSF Railway Company. Koziara had argued that BNSF unlawfully dismissed him for theft because BNSF discovered that he stole railroad ties in the course of its investigation after Koziara reported an on-duty injury. Reporting a workplace injury is protected activity under the FRSA.
The district court granted summary judgment to Koziara based on this theory, but allowed the jury to determine whether Koziara had reported his injury in good faith and whether BNSF had proven its affirmative defense that it would have dismissed Koziara even if he had not reported an injury. The jury answered no to both questions, and awarded Koziara more than $425,000 in damages. The court later granted Koziara's motion for attorneys' fees and costs of more than $550,000. The Seventh Circuit reversed the judgment because there was no evidence that BNSF's decision to fire Koziara was related to his injury report, and because BNSF established that it would have dismissed Koziara notwithstanding that report. Consequently, the Seventh Circuit entered judgment in BNSF's favor, rather than giving the plaintiff a "do-over" trial.
The Seventh Circuit also soundly rejected the district court's conclusion that Koziara proved, as a matter of law, that his injury report contributed to his dismissal simply because it initiated the events that led to his discipline. The Court explained that this argument failed to distinguish between causation and proximate causation, and that the former term embraces causes (such as a plaintiff's birth) that have no legal significance. The Seventh Circuit is the first Court of Appeals directly to decide this question, and its rejection of Koziara's "chain of events" reasoning is a significant victory for employers subject not only to the FRSA but also to other whistleblower statutes like Sarbanes-Oxley, which adopt the same burden-shifting framework.
Koziara v. BNSF Railway Co., No. 16-1577 (7th Cir.); No. 16-01059 (U.S.)