Barcomb v. Gen. Motors LLC

Decision Date15 October 2020
Docket NumberNo. 19-1350, No. 19-1870,19-1350
Citation978 F.3d 545
Parties Richard BARCOMB Plaintiff - Appellant v. GENERAL MOTORS LLC Defendant - Appellee Richard Barcomb Plaintiff - Appellant v. General Motors, LLC Defendant - Appellee
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Counsel who presented argument on behalf of the appellant and appeared on the brief was James Carter Keaney, of Saint Louis, MO. The following attorney(s) appeared on the appellant brief; Kevin J. Dolley, of Saint Louis, MO.

Counsel who presented argument on behalf of the appellee and appeared on the brief was Stephanie Schuster, of Washington, DC. The following attorney(s) appeared on the appellee brief; Michael S. Burkhardt, of Philadelphia, PA., Allison Powers, of Chicago, IL.

Before ERICKSON, MELLOY, and KOBES, Circuit Judges.

KOBES, Circuit Judge.

Richard Barcomb alleged that he was wrongfully fired by General Motors, LLC, under both federal and state law because he reported safety issues with the manufacturing process at the plant in Wentzville, Missouri. The district court granted summary judgment to GM on the retaliatory discharge claim under § 31307 of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), Pub. L. 112-141, 126 Stat. 405, 765–769 (July 6, 2012), codified at 49 U.S.C. § 30171, and it granted costs to GM under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d).1 Barcomb appeals, and we affirm in part and reverse in part.

I.

From 2014 until his termination in 2016, Barcomb worked in the plant's Final Process Repair Department. As a vehicle progresses through the assembly line and errors occur, employees report and log damaged vehicles in an electronic system, the Global Standard Inspection Process (GSIP), and on paper tickets. Those vehicles then go to the Final Process Repair phase where the mechanics (like Barcomb) make the needed repairs. Once repairs are completed, the employee marks it in GSIP (and presumably the paper ticket) and the vehicle is later tested and sent through a final inspection line.

Beginning in January 2015, Barcomb became concerned that his co-workers were falsely marking repairs complete in GSIP. These false reports ranged from cosmetic to safety-related issues. He "took serious issue with personnel who were trying to take credit for doing work they had not done" and made those repairs himself. D. Ct. Dkt. 57 at 2–3. Barcomb identified necessary repairs based on the paper tickets that accompanied the vehicles. In one case, he found that both the GSIP and paper tickets indicated a repair to a broken steering plug had been completed, but a note on the windshield indicated otherwise. He replaced the broken plug and reported the GSIP failure to GM's safety hotline. He also reported concerns about the false reports, or fraud as he refers to it in his complaint, to his supervisor, the shift leaders, and the general assembly area manager. GM investigated these reports.

In May 2016, GM terminated Barcomb for creating a hostile work environment due to a threatening comment Barcomb made during an involuntary disciplinary review. He filed suit alleging that GM violated MAP-21 by retaliating against him for alerting management to "motor vehicle defects falsely reported and/or confirmed as repaired." Compl., D. Ct. Dkt. 1-1, ¶ 66 (a) & (b). As relevant here, MAP-21 prohibits motor vehicle manufacturers from discharging an employee for reporting "information relating to any motor vehicle defect, noncompliance, or any violation or alleged violation of any notification or reporting requirement under this chapter." 49 U.S.C. § 30171(a)(1).

The district court granted summary judgment to GM because retaliation for Barcomb's "complaints on the misuse of the GSIP system as a whole and the false reporting by one co-worker in particular" is not actionable under MAP-21. D. Ct. Dkt. 57 at 3. In addressing this issue of first impression, the court held that the plain language "seems to address only post-manufacture whistleblowing." Id. at 7. As Barcomb's claims concerned co-worker misconduct and did not address a defect in a completed motor vehicle, his claims failed. Barcomb timely appealed, and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

II.

Barcomb claims that MAP-21's plain language protects him from retaliatory discharge because he provided "information relating to any motor vehicle defect" to GM. We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo . Evergreen Inv., LLC v. FCL Graphics, Inc. , 334 F.3d 750, 753 (8th Cir. 2003).

We begin with the statutory text. MAP-21 protects employees providing "information relating to any motor vehicle defect." 49 U.S.C. § 30171(a)(1). A defect "includes any defect in performance, construction, a component, or material of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment." Id. § 30102(a)(3). As one court has noted, that "definition is, unfortunately, circular." United States v. Gen. Motors Corp. , 841 F.2d 400, 404 (D.C. Cir. 1988). Congress enacted this definition in the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, Pub. L. 89-563, 80 Stat. 718, 719, and a relatively close-in-time dictionary states that a defect is the "want or absence of something necessary for completeness, perfection, or adequacy in form or function." Defect, Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1976).2

The statute defines motor vehicle as a "vehicle driven or drawn by mechanical power and manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads, and highways." Id. § 30102(a)(7). And motor vehicle equipment, as relevant here, means "any system, part, or component of a motor vehicle as originally manufactured." Id. § 30102(a)(8)(A). Notably, these definitions focus on the products themselves, not the internal manufacturing processes or accountability systems that automakers use. Taking all this together, we read the statute as protecting employees who provide information about something lacking in the completeness, perfection, or adequacy of the performance, construction, a component, or the material of a motor vehicle or its components.3

Barcomb primarily claims that he "provided substantial information regarding a pattern or practice of false repairs of specific motor vehicle defects." Barcomb Br. 30. By false repairs, we think the substantial record shows that he means that other employees falsely reported a repair complete in the GSIP system. As the district court put it, Barcomb complained about "the misuse of the GSIP system as a whole and the false reporting by one co-worker in particular." D. Ct. Dkt. 57 at 3. But the GSIP system was one of two systems tracking needed repairs, and, in the one case where both systems falsely reported repairs, a note attached to the vehicle told Barcomb what to fix. Barcomb's reports that coworkers received credit for repairs he completed are not information related to a motor vehicle defect.

Barcomb argues that the district court improperly limited MAP-21’ s protection for motor vehicle defects to "post-manufacture" or completed vehicles. Specifically, he claims that "[a] violation of law need not ever occur, be ‘completed,’ or be specifically cited for reporting to constitute ‘protected activity’ under § 30171." Barcomb Br. 35. He also urges that MAP-21-protected activity "includes the expression of reasonable, but mistaken, beliefs about legal violations." Id. at 36.

We are not persuaded. Despite his claims that he "repeatedly objected to manufacturing activities he reasonably believed jeopardized customer safety or otherwise violated motor vehicle safety standards," Barcomb Br. 30, Barcomb did not report an alleged violation of law and does not identify an alleged violation of a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard. His only claim is that he was retaliated against for reporting information related to motor vehicle defects.

To be sure, the text of the other whistleblower statutes Barcomb cites protects those who provide information relating to "conduct which the employee reasonably believes constitutes a violation of any Federal law, rule, or regulation." E.g. , 49 U.S.C. § 20109 (emphasis added). MAP-21 follows suit and protects those who provide information related to "any violation or alleged violation of any notification or reporting requirement of this chapter,"4 49 U.S.C. § 30171(a)(1) (emphasis added), and those who object or refuse to participate in "any activity that the employee reasonably believe[s] to be in violation of any provision of [this] chapter," id. § 30171(a)(5) (emphasis added). These same provisions do not use "alleged motor vehicle defect" or credit an employee's reasonable belief about a defect. The text does not support Barcomb's argument conflating protections for reporting technical violations of law with those for motor vehicle defects.

Barcomb warns that without protecting information related to manufacturing processes, virtually all automotive manufacturing employees will not benefit from MAP-21's anti-retaliation protections because they only see unfinished vehicles. We acknowledge that there is a fine distinction between a report about a process and a report about the process's result. But Barcomb's information amounted to a report that if a defect was identified on the assembly line, one of the two quality control systems may not show it. He identified a potential risk caused by errors in the reporting system,5 but not information about processes that created defects in motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment.

We acknowledge that the phrase "relating to" is "broad" and "indeterminate." Mellouli v. Lynch , 575 U.S. 798, 135 S. Ct. 1980, 1990, 192 L.Ed.2d 60 (2015). Those words, however, "extended to the furthest stretch of their indeterminacy stop nowhere" and so context "may tug in favor of a narrower reading." Id. (cleaned up). The dissent points to MAP-21's broad purpose and policy statement, 49 U.S.C. § 30101, to suggest a narrower...

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