D.C Circuit Derails Discrimination Claim Brought by Engineer Who Ran Train Off the Tracks

Bernadette Hunton
Bernadette Hunton
09/23/2015

It was a victory for train giant Amtrak last week when the D.C. Circuit held that no reasonable jury could find Amtrak’s termination of a black engineer for failure to obey a stop signal was a pretext for race discrimination. (Burley v. Nat’l Passenger Rail Corp., D.C. Cir., No. 14-7051, 9/18/15). In this case, Plaintiff Burley operated a train that was forced off the track after it passed a blue stop signal. Passing a blue signal is considered a serious violation because such signals warn that there are workers on or near the track.

Following an investigation of the incident by Burley’s supervisor, disciplinary charges were filed against Burley and the train’s white conductor, who was found to have dismounted the train without signaling to Burley that they were approaching a derailer. Both workers tried to waive the discipline, but only the conductor’s waiver was granted. Unlike his white colleague, Burley was terminated.

Burley responded by filing a race discrimination claim against Amtrak, alleging that the investigation was unreliable, and that Amtrak’s decisionmaker, who was unaware of Burley’s race, was influenced by Burley’s biased supervisor. In particular, Burley argued that unlike his supervisor, the review board found there was not enough evidence to conclude that the blue stop signal had actually been displayed. The board’s finding was consistent with Burley’s claim that he never saw such a signal. According to the court, however, the “differing observations and inferences” were not, without more, grounds on which a reasonable jury could conclude that Burley’s supervisor acted with racial animus.

Burley’s arguments that his supervisor failed to consider information about the conductor’s dismount and failed to review video footage of the incident were similarly rejected. According to the court, there was no evidence to support Burley’s claim that his supervisor was aware of the conductor’s dismount, and even if Burley’s supervisor failed to review the incident video footage, he took other steps that “one would expect of an investigator who sincerely sought to determine what actually happened.”

Burley’s argument that he was disciplined more harshly than other white employees fared no better. Burley was not similarly situated to his white colleague, the court held, whose duties as a conductor were different than an engineer’s. Unable to prove that his termination was motivated by racial bias, the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Burley’s claims on summary judgment.

 

 

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