The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 (“STAA”) contains protections for employees in the transportation industry who file complaints about safety-related issues, hours-of-service violations, and other federal commercial motor vehicle violations. More specifically, STAA gives employees a private right of action when their employer retaliates to such whistleblowing with an adverse action.
This brief overview provides some examples of what does and does not count as a “complaint” under STAA. STAA’s broad protections for complaints are codified at 49 U.S.C. § 31105(a)(1)(A):
(1) A person may not discharge an employee, or discipline or discriminate against an employee regarding pay, terms, or privileges of employment, because—(A)(i) the employee, or another person at the employee’s request, has filed a complaint or begun a proceeding related to a violation of a commercial motor vehicle safety or security regulation, standard, or order, or has testified or will testify in such a proceeding; or(ii) the person perceives that the employee has filed or is about to file a complaint or has begun or is about to begin a proceeding related to a violation of a commercial motor vehicle safety or security regulation, standard, or order.
Adverse Action Necessary
Before considering the further points below, remember that STAA’s protections kick in if and only if you’ve (1) filed a complaint, and (2) been subject to a subsequent adverse action by your employer. An “adverse action” can include being terminated, being disciplined, or being discriminated against with respect to pay, terms, or privileges of employment. For example, it might be considered an adverse action if your employer stops assigning you loads, or makes the workplace environment unduly hostile, or puts demonstrably false information on your DAC or other safety report. If you haven’t been subject to any adverse action, then there wouldn’t be any wrongful retaliation for you to seek recovery for under STAA.
Grievances Made to Coworkers Are Not Typically Complaints
Most likely, if you make a complaint to a fellow employee, this will not be considered a complaint protected by STAA. This is true whether you are merely expressing to a coworker that you don’t like your boss, and also even if you are expressing to a coworker that there are defects or maintenance issues with a truck or trailer your employer has assigned you. These typically don’t count as complaints because they aren’t made to personnel with the appropriate decisionmaking authority. If a trucking company is small enough, it might be the case that one’s boss is also one’s coworker--in this case, one’s grievance could count as a complaint under STAA because it would be made to a decisionmaker with the authority to terminate you, take disciplinary measures, or other adverse actions against you on behalf of the company. It also might be the case that one’s company policy delineates protocol for making complaints--for example, a larger company might direct them to human resources personnel. In such a case, it is likely that one’s grievance would be considered a complaint under STAA even if it was not made to a supervisor--namely, if one was following a specific company policy regarding how to make complaints.
Grievances Made to Mechanics Are Not Typically Complaints
As with coworkers, it is generally the case that grievances made to mechanics do not count as complaints under STAA. Again, in the case of small companies it is possible that owners/supervisors might double as the company’s mechanics.
Grievances Made to Supervisors, Managers, and Dispatchers are Complaints
It is often ideal if you express your complaint to a manager or supervisor, more specifically, the person(s) responsible for managing you. Of course, it’s usually the case that companies will have internal policies making clear that employees are supposed to report problems they have to their managers, so that managers can decide how to respond to the problem. Further, managers are usually in the position of having authority as decisionmakers--for example, whether to authorize maintenance to be done on trucks, whether to fire an employee, or whether to recommend firing an employee to the appropriate corporate personnel. Dispatchers act as managers over drivers, so grievances made to them typically are sufficient to be counted as complaints under STAA. This is especially the case for drivers who are on the road, since during this time dispatch is the driver’s primary point of contact with the employer. Reporting grievances about STAA violations to your supervisor, manager, and/or dispatcher is usually the most effective way for your grievance to be considered an internal “complaint” protected by STAA.
Grievances Filed with FMCSA are Complaints
As the above has made clear, STAA’s protections extend to internal complaints, when these complaints are made with one’s manager, supervisor, or dispatcher. STAA’s protections also extend to instances of external complaints, as when employees file an administrative action, such as an FMCSA grievance, against their employer. In this case, it is important that your appropriate manager or supervisor was aware that you filed the FMCSA grievance. If the supervisor has no reason to know that you were the one who filed such a grievance, then even though it counts as a complaint under STAA, it would not be a complaint that resulted in retaliatory adverse action--it couldn’t be retaliatory if the manager didn’t know about your complaint in the first place.
If you believe you may have a claim under STAA, first ask yourself (1) Did I engage in protected activity by verbalizing complaints about mechanical defects, hours-of-service violations, or other violations of STAA? If you’ve answered yes to that first question, next ask (2) Did I verbalize my complaints to the correct personnel, namely, to my manager, supervisor, and/or dispatcher? Finally, if you’ve answered affirmatively to that second question as well, then ask (3) Did my employer take an adverse action against me after I verbalized these complaints?
If you believe you have a complaint against your employer, or are unsure but would like to speak with someone further, give us a call ((952) 657-5780) for a free consultation!