What Am I Seeking to Get From A Lawsuit? Remedies Available under STAA

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.

As discussed in our previous blog post (LINK), both STAA, which is administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the Department of Labor, and Department of Transportation regulations of the Federal Motor Carrier Services Administration offer employees ways to report employer misconduct and safety risks.

If you are in a situation where you believe your employer is violating safety regulations, especially if you believe you’ve been retaliated against for complaining about those violations or refusing to drive in violation of the law, you might be considering legal options. If this is the situation you’re in, an important first step for you to consider is what result you are hoping to achieve by pursuing legal action.

If your sole goal is to expose these safety issues through an investigation, it’s likely that an FMCSA grievance may be your best route. However, if you have a personal grievance because your employer has also retaliated against you, a STAA complaint provides you with a more expanded array of remedy options.

First, if you pursue a claim under STAA, your situation might permit you to seek damages for back pay. If you have reason to believe you were demoted to lower-paying routes in retaliation for complaining about safety issues, then you might be able to recoup the difference. Or, if the retaliation you faced was that you were fired, then damages could include lost wages at your usual date starting from the date of termination.

Second, while the value of this remedy varies based on the workplace situation, one of the remedies available under STAA is reinstatement. If your workplace has become too hostile, or if you decide the safety issues with your employer are too significant and recurring, then it is likely reinstatement will not ultimately be a remedy that you would value. It is possible, however, in many situations for employees to be able to continue to work with the employer that they have filed a complaint against. Indeed, if your employer wrongfully terminated you, if have looked but are unable to find similar employment, and if your employer is found liable under STAA, your back pay damages begin on the date of termination and can continue indefinitely until your employer makes you a bona fide offer of reinstatement.

Third, it is often the case that employees will want to move on from the employers they bring STAA complaints against. However, employees can be placed in a difficult situation when trying to find employment if they fear that their employer will “blacklist” them by putting damaging information on their DAC report, or by speaking poorly of the employee if the employer is contacted during the job application process. Remedies available under STAA can address both of these situations. If your employer is found liable in a STAA action, and you choose to look for work elsewhere, remedies can include an order instructing your employer to provide a neutral employment reference, and they can also include having such negative information moved from records kept by organizations like Hire Right, Inc.

Fourth, if you are successful in your STAA claim, you might also be entitled to compensatory damages for pain and suffering. An unexpected and undeserved termination, or other adverse treatment at work, can have devastating impacts on an employee’s mental and physical health, on family life, on one’s financial security and savings, and so on. In addition to the possibility of being compensated for such emotional and physical distress itself, it may also be possible to recover expenses for services like therapy.

Finally, in exceptional cases, plaintiffs in STAA cases might be awarded punitive damages. These damages might be awarded when an employer’s actions are determined to be especially “egregious,” or their violations are systematic, or they were found to be knowingly violating the law with cavalier disregard. It is worth pointing out that many people overestimate their ability to recover punitive damages—they may have been unjustly and unfairly treated by their employer, and may reasonably be quite upset with the employer, believing that any court would be similarly appalled that their employer is an especially bad actor. This may or may not be the case for you if you pursue a STAA action against your employer, but only a relatively small number of plaintiffs have been successful in recovering punitive damages under the statute.

What is important is that there is an array of options you can pursue if you are concerned that your employer is acting in violation of STAA or FMCSA regulations. You can pursue an FMCSA grievance if your goal in an investigation, or if you have a personal grievance because you’ve been subject to retaliation, a STAA action can provide a venue for seeking compensation to make you whole by way of back pay for lost wages, compensation for emotional distress, neutral employment references, scrubbing of information from DAC reports, and potentially punitive awards to punish or dissuade defendants from particularly bad actions.

If you believe you have been the victim of retaliation by your employer for complaining about safety-related issues protected under STAA, give us a call ((952) 657-5780) and we’ll be happy to talk with you about your options!

FMCSA Complaints Versus STAA Complaints

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!

How Long Do I Have to File a Lawsuit under STAA?

If you are considering filing a lawsuit against your employer under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), timing can be of the essence.

The statute of limitations under STAA is 180 days. A “statute of limitations” is a specified amount of time in which it is permissible to file a claim under a given statute. Different statutes have their own guidelines as to when their own statute of limitations begins to “run,” that is, when the clock starts ticking for any rights of action provided for under that statute.

STAA provides a private right of action for employees whose employers retaliated against them after they made safety-related complaints. The timing for when statute of limitations under STAA starts to toll is determined by the timing of the adverse action, rather than the timing of your initial complaint. More specifically, the clock for STAA’s 180-day statute of limitations starts ticking from the day that you first learn that you have been subject to such an adverse action.

It is therefore prudent to act with reasonable haste if you intend to bring a claim against your employer. Give us a call (952) 657-5780) if you would like a free consultation to discuss that possibility further!