Driver Succeeds in Whistle-Blower Claim in Split Tenth Circuit Decision

In a 2-1 decision, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held a trucking company liable under a federal whistle-blower law for terminating a driver who refused to follow orders out of concern for his safety. TransAm Trucking, Inc. v. Admin. Review Bd. (10th Cir. 2016).

Circuit Judges Michael Murphy and Carolyn McHugh held that Alphonse Maddin engaged in activity protected by the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) when he refused in January 2009 to drag a trailer with frozen brakes down the highway and to wait hours in an unheated truck cabin at sub-zero temperatures for a repair person, per his supervisor’s instruction. Instead, after reporting the problem to his employer and waiting several hours for a repair truck, Maddin unhitched his truck from the trailer and drove away, leaving the trailer unattended. He was terminated for abandoning the trailer.

The matter was originally reviewed by the Administrative Review Board (ARB), which held in Maddin’s favor. In that proceeding, an administrative law judge concluded that “Maddin engaged in protected activity when he reported the frozen brake issue to TransAm and again when he refused to obey [his supervisor’s] instruction to drive the truck while dragging the trailer.”

The court upheld ARB’s decision on a different provision that makes it unlawful to discharge an employee who “refuses to operate a vehicle because … the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition.”

The court reinstated Maddin with back pay.

In his dissent, Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch observed that the relevant portion of the STAA was actually inapplicable, as Maddin did not refuse to operate his truck, as the regulation required in order to protect the driver, but actually unhooked the tractor from the trailer and attempted to drive to a gas station.

The Tenth Circuit covers the states of Colorado, Utah, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.