The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is a federal entity located within the Department of Transportation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is another organ of the federal government, operating out of the Department of Labor. Both the FMCSA and OSHA have responsibilities and authority for ensuring the safety of commercial motor vehicles driven in interstate commerce.
While there can be overlap in the issues that the FMCSA and OSHA pursues towards this end, it is important to emphasize a key difference. Namely, complaints filed with the FMCSA do not involve a lawsuit by you against the company. Choosing to file a complaint with FMCSA may still be the appropriate action for you to take, as it can lead to a federal investigation if your employer is engaged in questionable business practices.
In contrast, the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) does provide for an individual right of action. Complaints brought under STAA are filed with OSHA. What this means is that STAA permits you to pursue litigation to seek compensation for your own actual harms. This compensation could come in the form of special damages seeking recovery for backpay and lost wages, compensatory damages for pain and suffering, or punitive damages to punish malicious behavior by the wrongdoing employer.
For example, you might have overwhelming evidence that your employer is running other drivers thin, is requiring them to violate hours-of-service regulations, or is regularly operating commercial motor vehicles that have serious, unfixed defects that endanger public safety. In this scenario, suppose that your employer does not require you to violate any regulations, or at least accepts your refusal to do so. In such a factual scenario, there presumably would not be anything creating the possibility of you pursuing a STAA-based lawsuit against the company. At the same time, even if you can’t bring a claim under STAA, that doesn’t mean you should do nothing. Filing a complaint with FMCSA can be an effective way of reporting systemic practices by employers that put the public in danger but would otherwise go unnoticed if left unreported.
For another example, suppose you have been given a dedicated route by your employer, one that you have routinely been performing. Suppose that it was initially possible to perform this route legally, but your employer then started to push up the expected delivery time in such a way that the route would be impossible to perform on time unless you skipped your required 30 minute breaks. After you tell your employer that you refuse to perform the route in violation of hours-of-service regulations, suppose your employer takes you off the dedicated route and only assigns you non-lucrative, local deliveries from that point onwards. In this scenario, you can argue that an adverse action was taken against you (because you are making less money), you engaged in protected activity (complaining that you refused to violate hours-of-service regulations), and a lawsuit can help make you whole (by compensating you for the money you lost, for emotional distress you experienced because of the lost wages, and so on). It is this type of situation that employees can look to STAA for in seeking to have their issues addressed.
Finally, it is important to note that even though a grievance filed with FMCSA will not result in an individual lawsuit on its own, filing such a grievance can constitute a “complaint” protected under STAA (see this blog post on the meaning of a complaint under STAA). This might be because you specifically verbalize to your company’s management that you have submitted such a grievance to FMCSA; if they subject you to an adverse action after being notified, then you might have a claim of retaliation under STAA. Even if you do not directly inform management, it might somehow become apparent during an FMCSA investigation that you were the employee who ordered the investigation—in which case the possibility of a retaliatory adverse action again could arise.
In sum, an FMCSA grievance and a STAA complaint are both mechanisms you can use to promote the public safety and seek remedial actions for employers violating federal safety regulations. Questions about which of those routes is best for you (or perhaps both or neither are) is something that will depend on the specific facts of your situation, and will also depend on what result you are hoping to achieve with your complaint (for more on remedies, check out our next post!).
If you believe you are entitled to relief under STAA, or if you’re simply uncertain whether your issue is a FMCSA grievance, STAA complaint, or something else, contact us ((952) 657-5780) for a free consultation!