English v. General Electric Company

Citation110 L.Ed.2d 65,496 U.S. 72,110 S.Ct. 2270
Decision Date04 June 1990
Docket NumberNo. 89-152,89-152
PartiesVera M. ENGLISH, Petitioner v. GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioner English, a laboratory technician at a nuclear facility operated by respondent General Electric Company (GE), complained to GE's management and to the Federal Government about several perceived violations of nuclear-safety standards at the facility, including the failure of her co-workers to clean up radioactive spills in the laboratory. Frustrated by GE's failure to address her concerns, English on one occasion deliberately failed to clean a work table contaminated with uranium during an earlier shift. Instead, she outlined the contaminated areas with red tape to make them conspicuous and, a few days later, called her supervisor's attention to the fact that the marked-off areas still had not been cleaned. Shortly after work was halted for inspection and cleaning of the laboratory, GE charged English with a knowing failure to clean up radioactive contamination, temporarily assigned her to other work, and ultimately discharged her. She then filed a complaint with the Secretary of Labor, alleging that GE's actions violated § 210(a) of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which makes it unlawful for a nuclear industry employer to retaliate against an employee for reporting safety violations. Although an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found a § 210(a) violation, the Secretary dismissed the complaint as untimely under the 30-day limitations period provided by § 210(b)(1). Subsequently, English filed a diversity action seeking compensatory and punitive damages from GE in the District Court, raising, inter alia, a state-law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. While rejecting GE's argument that the latter claim fell within a field—nuclear safety—that had been completely pre-empted by the Federal Government, the court nevertheless dismissed the claim on the ground that it conflicted with three particular aspects of § 210 and was therefore pre-empted. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: English's state-law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress is not pre-empted by federal law. Pp. 78-90.

(a) The claim is not barred on a field pre-emption theory. After reviewing the relevant statutory provisions and legislative history, the Court in Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Comm'n, 461 U.S. 190, 103 S.Ct. 1713, 75 L.Ed.2d 752, concluded that "the Federal Government has occupied the entire field of nuclear safety con cerns," id., at 212, 103 S.Ct., at 1726, and expressed the view that Congress intended that only the "Government should regulate the radiological safety aspects involved in the construction and operation of a nuclear plant," id., at 205, 103 S.Ct., at 1722. English's action, however, does not fall within the boundaries of the pre-empted field as so defined, since the state tort law at issue is not motivated by safety concerns, see id., at 213, 103 S.Ct., at 1727, and since the claim's actual effect on the nuclear safety decisions made by those who build and run nuclear facilities is not sufficiently direct and substantial, cf. Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238, 104 S.Ct. 615, 78 L.Ed.2d 443. It is thus not surprising that there is no evidence of the necessary "clear and manifest" intent by Congress to pre-empt such claims. Pp. 80-86.

(b) English's claim does not conflict with particular aspects of § 210. First, neither the text nor the legislative history of § 210(g)—which provides that "Subsection (a) of this section [the prohibition on employer retaliation] shall not apply" where an employee "deliberately causes a violation of any requirement of this Act or the Atomic Energy Act"—reflects a congressional desire to preclude all relief, including state remedies, to a whistle-blower who deliberately commits a safety violation. Even if that were Congress' intent, the federal interest would be served by pre-empting recovery by violators of safety standards. Here, the ALJ found that English did not deliberately commit a violation. Second, absent some specific suggestion in the text or legislative history, the failure of § 210 to provide general authorization for the Secretary to award punitive damages for § 210(a) violations does not imply a congressional intent to bar a state action, like English's, that permits such an award. Third, the expeditious timeframes provided for the processing of § 210 claims do not reflect a congressional decision that, in order to encourage the reporting of safety violations and retaliatory behavior, no whistleblower should be able to recover under any other law after the time for filing under § 210 has expired. Since many retaliatory incidents are a response to safety complaints made to the Federal Government, the Government is already aware of these safety violations even if employees do not invoke § 210's remedial provisions. Moreover, the suggestion that employees will forgo their § 210 options and rely solely on state remedies is simply too speculative a basis on which to rest a pre-emption finding. Pp. 87-90.

871 F.2d 22 (CA 1989), reversed and remanded.

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

M. Travis Payne, Raleigh, N.C., for petitioner.

Christopher J. Wright, Washington, D.C., for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting petitioner, by special leave of Court.

Carter G. Phillips, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In the particular context of this case we must decide whether federal law pre-empts a state-law cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The suit is brought by an employee of a nuclear-fuels production facility against her employer and arises out of actions by the employer allegedly taken in retaliation for the employee's nuclear-safety complaints.

I

Petitioner Vera M. English was employed from 1972 to 1984 as a laboratory technician at the nuclear-fuels production facility operated by respondent General Electric Company (GE) in Wilmington, N.C. In February 1984, petitioner complained to GE's management and to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) about several perceived violations of nuclear-safety standards at the facility, including the failure of her co-workers to clean up radioactive material spills in the laboratory.

Frustrated by the company's failure to address her concerns, petitioner on one occasion deliberately failed to clean a work table contaminated with a uranium solution during a preceding shift. Instead, she outlined the contaminated areas with red tape so as to make them conspicuous. A few days later, petitioner called her supervisor's attention to the marked-off areas, which still had not been cleaned. As a result, work was halted while the laboratory was inspected and cleaned.

Shortly after this episode, GE charged petitioner with a knowing failure to clean up radioactive contamination and temporarily assigned her to other work. On April 30, 1984, GE's management informed petitioner that she would be laid off unless, within 90 days, she successfully bid for a position in an area of the facility where she would not be exposed to nuclear materials. On May 15, petitioner was notified of the company's final decision affirming the disciplinary action taken against her. Petitioner did not find another position by July 30, and her employment was terminated.1

In August, petitioner filed a complaint with the Secretary of Labor charging GE with violating § 210(a) of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, as added, 92 Stat. 2951, 42 U.S.C. § 5851(a) (1982 ed.), which makes it unlawful for an employer in the nuclear industry to

"discharge any employee or otherwise discriminate against any employee with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because the employee . . .

"(1) commenced, caused to be commenced, or is about to commence or cause to be commenced a proceeding under this Act or the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, or a proceeding for the administration or enforcement of any requirement imposed under this Act or the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended;

"(2) testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding or;

"(3) assisted or participated or is about to assist or participate in any manner in such a proceeding . . . or in any other action to carry out the purposes of this Act or the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended." 2

In her charge, petitioner alleged that GE's actions constituted unlawful employment discrimination in retaliation for her nuclear-safety complaints to GE's management and to the NRC. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to whom the matter was referred found that GE had violated § 210(a) when it transferred and then discharged petitioner. The Secretary, however, dismissed the complaint as untimely because it had not been filed, as required by § 210(b)(1), within 30 days after the May 15 notice of the company's final decision.3

In March 1987, petitioner filed a diversity action against GE in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Petitioner in four counts raised two claims, one for wrongful discharge and one for intentional infliction of emotional distress.4 With respect to the latter, petitioner alleged that she was suffering from severe depression and emotional harm as a result of GE's "extreme and outrageous conduct." App. 20. Petitioner alleged that, in addition to transferring and ultimately firing her, GE (1) had removed her from the laboratory position under guard "as if she were a criminal," id., at 14; (2) had assigned her to degrading "make work" in her substitute assignment, ibid.; (3) had derided her as paranoid; (4) had barred her from working in controlled areas; (5) had placed her under constant surveillance during working hours; (6) had...

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