480 U.S. 557 (1987), 85-1140, Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. Buell

Docket Nº:No. 85-1140
Citation:480 U.S. 557, 107 S.Ct. 1410, 94 L.Ed.2d 563, 55 U.S.L.W. 4362
Party Name:Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. Buell
Case Date:March 24, 1987
Court:United States Supreme Court

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480 U.S. 557 (1987)

107 S.Ct. 1410, 94 L.Ed.2d 563, 55 U.S.L.W. 4362

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co.



No. 85-1140

United States Supreme Court

March 24, 1987

Argued December 1, 1986




Under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), railroad workers can sue their employers for personal injuries suffered at the hands of the employers or fellow employees. The Railway Labor Act (RLA) provides for the submission of minor labor disputes in the railroad industry to binding arbitration. Respondent, a carman employed by petitioner, filed an FELA suit in Federal District Court, alleging that petitioner had condoned his harassment by fellow employees, causing him to suffer an emotional breakdown. The District Court granted petitioner summary judgment, holding that the RLA precluded an FELA remedy. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that respondent's claims were not arbitrable under the RLA, and that an FELA action was therefore not precluded. Additionally, although the question had been neither raised by the parties nor addressed by the District Court, the Court of Appeals held that purely emotional injury is compensable under the FELA.


1. The fact that an injury was caused by conduct that may have been subject to arbitration under the RLA does not deprive a railroad employee of his right to bring an FELA action for damages. The FELA not only provides substantive protection against conduct that is independent of the employer's obligations under its collective bargaining agreement, but also affords injured workers a remedy suited to their needs, unlike the limited relief of backpay and reinstatement that is available through RLA arbitration. Although the RLA minor disputes remedy is exclusive "in at least some circumstances," it is not exclusive in situations that the FELA was enacted to address. Pp. 564-566.

2. Petitioner's argument that, even if many workplace injuries are actionable under the FELA, the RLA requires that a narrow "emotional injury" exception be carved out of the FELA because of the close relationship of such injuries to minor disputes that must be brought under the RLA is not persuasive. There is no basis for assuming that allowing FELA emotional injury actions will wreak havoc with the RLA's general arbitration scheme, and absent an intolerable conflict between the two

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statutes, this Court is unwilling to read the RLA as repealing any part of the FELA. Pp. 566-567.

3. The record is insufficient at this preliminary stage to allow this Court, or the Court of Appeals, to express an opinion on respondent's ultimate chance of recovery under the FELA on his emotional injury claim. The question whether purely emotional injury is compensable under the FELA is not necessarily an abstract point of law or a pure question of statutory construction susceptible to an all-inclusive "yes" or "no" answer. It might require exacting scrutiny of each case's facts in light of developing legal principles. Pp. 567-571.

771 F.2d 1320, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

A railroad has a duty to use reasonable care in furnishing its employees with a safe place to work. That duty was recognized at common law, see Bailey v. Central Vermont R. Co., 319 U.S. 350, 352-353 (1943), is given force through the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq., and is confirmed in some, if not all, collective bargaining agreements. Breaches of the duty may at times give rise to typical labor disputes for which the Railway Labor Act (RLA), 44 Stat. 577, as amended, 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., sets forth binding arbitration procedures.

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Breaches may also result in injuries to a railroad's employees -- injuries for which the FELA would appear to give employees a cause of action for damages. The question in this case is whether the possibility of pursuing a labor grievance under the RLA deprives an employee of his right to bring an FELA action.


Respondent, a carman employed by petitioner, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company (Railroad), filed an FELA complaint in Federal District Court, alleging that he had suffered severe personal injuries as a result of the Railroad's failure

to provide [him] with a safe place to work, including, but not limited to, having fellow employees harass, threaten, intimidate [him], and in particular, foreman Ed Wright threatened, harassed, and intimidated [him] maliciously and oppressively, negligently, and intentionally, in order to cause personal injury to [him] and to cause mental and emotional suffering. All said acts were condoned and approved by [the Railroad]. and as a direct and proximate result of said negligence and intentional acts, [he] was caused to suffer an emotional breakdown, thus inflicting on [him] injuries and damages as hereinafter alleged.

App. 7. The Railroad filed an answer, asserting, among other defenses, that respondent's sole remedy was before the National Railroad Adjustment Board (Adjustment Board) pursuant to the RLA. Id. at 10-13.

Through the ensuing discovery, the Railroad identified various incidents of harassment that were embraced within the complaint's allegations,1 and also established that its

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collective bargaining agreement with respondent's union allowed an employee to prosecute a grievance through successive levels of appeal up to and including mutually binding arbitration before the Adjustment Board.2 Discovery also brought out that respondent had suffered a mental breakdown, and certain associated physical [107 S.Ct. 1413] disorders, that required his hospitalization for 17 days.

The Railroad then moved for dismissal or for summary judgment. The ground for its motion, in the Railroad's own words, was that

there is no subject matter jurisdiction in the district court to entertain an action concerning a labor dispute between a "carrier" subject to the Railway Labor Act and its employees.

Record Doc. No. 42, p. 6. The District Court accepted this argument, and granted summary judgment on

the narrow question of the availability to an employee covered by the RLA of an FELA remedy based on an alleged negligent failure to maintain a safe workplace.

App. to Pet. for Cert. 11a. The Court of Appeals reversed. It held that respondent's claims were not arbitrable under the RLA, and that an FELA action was therefore not precluded. 771 F.2d 1320, 1323-1324 (CA9 1985). Additionally, although the question had neither been raised by the parties3 nor addressed by the District Court,4 the Court of

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Appeals proclaimed that a relevant

issue, one of first impression in this circuit, is whether a Railroad employee's wholly mental injury stemming from his railroad employment is compensable under the [FELA].

Id. at 1321. The Court of Appeals concluded that the FELA does authorize recovery for emotional injury. Because of the important role these two statutes play in railway labor relations, we granted certiorari. 476 U.S. 1103 (1986).


In 1906,5 Congress enacted the FELA to provide a federal remedy for railroad workers who suffer personal injuries as a result of the negligence of their employer or their fellow employees. A primary purpose of the Act was to eliminate a number of traditional defenses to tort liability and to facilitate recovery in meritorious cases. The Act expressly prohibits covered carriers from adopting any regulation, or entering into any contract, to limit their FELA liability.6 The coverage of the statute is defined in broad language,7 which

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has been construed even more broadly.8 We have recognized generally that the FELA is a broad remedial [107 S.Ct. 1414] statute, and have adopted a "standard of liberal construction in order to accomplish [Congress'] objects." Urie v. Thompson, 337 U.S. 163, 180 (1949).

The RLA, by contrast, provides a comprehensive framework for the resolution of labor disputes in the railroad industry. Enacted in 1926, the text of the RLA does not mention the FELA or otherwise deal with the subject of tort liability. Rather, the RLA establishes elaborate administrative procedures for the resolution of both major and minor labor disputes.9 The statutory procedures for resolving "major

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disputes" -- those arising "out of the formation or change of collective [bargaining] agreements covering rates of pay, rules, or working conditions," Detroit & T. S. L. R. Co. v. Transportation Union, 396 U.S. 142, 145, n. 7 (1969) -- are not relevant to this case. The "minor dispute" provisions are relevant, however, because the Railroad argues that the underlying dangerous condition in this case could have been grieved as a minor dispute -- one

growing out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions,

45 U.S.C. § 153, First (i). Minor disputes initially must be dealt with through a railroad's internal dispute resolution processes, and if not settled there, may be submitted to a division...

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