A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Fired Amtrak Employee Can Proceed To Jury Trial on Claim of Perceived Disability Discrimination

By on October 12, 2018 in Other with 0 Comments

David Rollins worked for Amtrak for 23 years until August 2015 as a supervisor in North Brunswick, N.J. overseeing 20 employees performing track maintenance.  His normal supervisor went on vacation, and Rollins experienced tension and stress with his temporary supervisor, Josh Newbold.  Rollins reported to another supervisor, Semliatschenko, his concerns about safety due to what he perceived as insufficient coordination with Newbold.  A meeting among all three was arranged on March 12, 2015 in which there was a heated argument.  Semliatschenko left the room for a few minutes during which Newbold later  claimed that Rollins threatened him with bodily harm.  Newbold did not report the alleged threat for six weeks.

On April 23, 2015, Rollins placed a call to ‘Operation RedBlock,” an employee assistance program helpline.  He said he was dealing with work and family stress issues.  At his duty station that night, Rollins was approached by Amtrak Police and paramedics from the local hospital asking him whether he was contemplating suicide.  Rollins denied suicidal thoughts and admitted simply work and family stress.  He noted his son was dealing with cancer treatment. He was taken to a local hospital and later released.  The hospital determined Rollins did not have suicidal thoughts and was not a danger to the railroad.  He was placed on medical leave pending clearance to return to work.

When he came to work the next day, Newbold found out about the incident the night before involving Rollins, and Newbold became concerned about Rollins’ emotional stability.  Newbold said that he was fearful about the threat that Rollins allegedly made on March 12, 2015, and he then reported the alleged threat for the first time.  He said that Rollins threatened to “come down to Levittown and slide one in me.”

Rollins was cleared to return to work in July 2015.  However, an investigation with a neutral hearing officer ensued at this point over the alleged threat against Newbold.  That led to a hearing on August 10, 2015.  In the hearing Newbold explained that he did not report the threat for the first six weeks because he did not think Rollins had been serious about harming him initially.  He said he became concerned about Rollins’ emotional stability when he came to work on April 24, 2015 and found out about the hospital visit.   The hearing officer recommended termination of Rollins’ employment in part for a violation of the Amtrak Workplace Anti-Violence Policy.  Rollins made multiple appeals without success and then filed a civil suit alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

In his suit Rollins argued that Amtrak discriminated against him on the basis of a perceived disability.  He contended that Amtrak perceived him as having a mental disability on account of his call to operation RedBlock and his discussion with a counsellor who alerted Amtrak Police.  He further argued that his firing was based on a pretext that he had engaged in an act of violence at his workplace.

Amtrak moved to dismiss the case.  Its management denied having any discriminatory animus against Rollins and conceded only that one co-employee, Newbold, could have had any discriminatory animus against him.

The federal court rejected the motion for summary judgment filed by Amtrak:  “Based on the facts provided by the parties, one can plausibly argue that Newbold and Amtrak management were motivated by discriminatory animus.  Defendant received Newbold’s complaint for an alleged threat that occurred weeks prior thereto, the morning after Plaintiff’s call to Operation RedBlock.  A jury may determine that the request for psychological services was the motivation to seek Rollins’ dismissal.”

Timing was the problem Amtrak faced in winning its motion for summary judgment.  The alleged threat by Rollins against Newbold occurred on March 12, 2015 but was not reported until the day after Rollins was taken to a hospital and found to have no suicidal thoughts, some six weeks later.  The report of the alleged threat then led directly to the termination of Rollins.  In the end the Court believed Rollins had made out a sufficient case to allow a jury trial on whether Amtrak wrongfully perceived him as having a mental disability and discriminated against him on that basis.  The case can be found at Rollins v. National Railroad Passenger Corp., 2018 A.D. Cases 336982 (D.N.J. September 18, 2018).

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, an executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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