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SEPTA rail workers win big victory

CLEVELAND, December 24 — In a unanimous decision issued on December 19, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that the immunity from lawsuits conferred by the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution upon the 50 States does not extend to suits filed by injured railroad workers under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) against the commuter railroad operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA).

At issue before the Court were the FELA claims of three SEPTA conductors and a SEPTA welder/electrician, which had been dismissed by a lower court in a split-decision ruling that held SEPTA had been structured by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania so as to enjoy the Commonwealth’s Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity.

In a lengthy and very detailed opinion the Court began by noting that the question of whether SEPTA was entitled to sovereign immunity was not to be decided by reference to the
Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act, but rather by reference to federal law. The Court then exhaustively detailed the history of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity case law, starting with the language of the Eleventh Amendment itself and discussing U.S. Supreme Court decisions from 1821 to the present.

The Court next applied the federal two-part test in determining whether SEPTA is an “arm of the state” for sovereign immunity purposes. Regarding the “six factors of immunity” that comprise the first prong of the test, the Court found that the Commonwealth exercised little control over the SEPTA Board because it had only limited power of appointment and no power to veto its actions, because the SEPTA Board has the power to independently raise revenue on its own, and because no monetary obligation incurred by SEPTA is binding on the Commonwealth. However, the Court was required to conduct the second prong of the test because all six factors did not uniformly point to SEPTA being not entitled to immunity.

The second prong of the test examined two factors: primarily, whether FELA suits against SEPTA offend the dignity of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; and, secondarily, what impact a FELA judgment against SEPTA would have on the Commonwealth’s treasury.

Regarding the first factor, the Court found that FELA suits against SEPTA do not offend the dignity of the Commonwealth because it is not named as a defendant, does not participate in the suit, and has specifically repudiated, by statute, any legal responsibility for obligations incurred by SEPTA. The Court also found that a FELA judgment against SEPTA would have no impact on Pennsylvania’s treasury because the Commonwealth has no legal liability for such judgments.

The BLET and other rail unions have battled against SEPTA to protect workers’ rights regarding FELA for nearly four years. The issue first surfaced in January of 2009, when SEPTA posted notices throughout the property instructing its commuter rail workers who were injured on the job to seek remedy under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act instead of the FELA. SEPTA had to retreat after the BLET and several other Rail Labor unions joined forces to challenge SEPTA’s position.

In addition to BLET, the other unions involved in the dispute include: the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; Sheet Metal Workers International Association; United Transportation Union; International Association of Machinists; and the Transportation Communications International Union.

BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce hailed BLET General Counsel Mike Wolly and Margo Pave for their work in securing this victory. “Mike and Margo did a tremendous job coordinating the friend of the Court brief filed by the BLET and the other unions on SEPTA and in providing key support in this case,” Pierce said. “The Court’s slam-dunk decision is a huge victory for BLET members and other railroad workers, and I am very pleased that justice has been done.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s opinion can be read, printed or downloaded from the BLET website.

Monday, December 24, 2012
bentley@ble-t.org

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