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Rollins v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 18, 2018

DAVID ROLLINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORP. d/b/a AMTRAK, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          SHERIDAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court on a motion for summary judgment [ECF No. 36] filed by Defendant the National Railroad Passenger Corporation d/b/a Amtrak.

         I.

         Plaintiff, David Rollins, a former employee of Amtrak, argues that he was unlawfully terminated from his employment. Plaintiff was employed with Amtrak for nearly 23 years, until August 4, 2015. (Second Amend Compl., ECF No. 25, ¶8). He was a supervisor for at least 10 years and his last position was the "night shift supervisor at the Adams Maintenance of Way Base located in North Brunswick, NJ," (track supervisor)[1] (Id.; Rollins Depo. T. 29:21). In that position, Plaintiff was responsible for overseeing approximately twenty employees performing track maintenance. (Rollins Depo. T. 44:14-25). The position required coordination with the track maintenance team and supervisor who worked on the day shift to ensure continuity of work. (Rollins DepoT45:l-47:25).

         In March 2015, Josh Newbold, an assistant day supervisor, was temporarily assigned to act as the day supervisor while the usual supervisor was on vacation. The transition did not proceed smoothly as there was tension between Plaintiff and Newbold in coordinating the management of the railway. (Second Amend. Comp., ¶ 10).

         Sometime after the switch from the day to the night shift, Plaintiff reported to his supervisor, John Semliatschenko, Assistant Division Engineer, that there was a problem with Newbold due to insufficient coordination, and that he was concerned about the safety during his shift. Plaintiff requested that a meeting be arranged to address his concerns. (Id., ¶ 11). A meeting was arranged on March 12, 2015, between Plaintiff, Newbold, and Semliatschenko, who was to function as a mediator. (Id., ¶ 12). At the meeting, a very vocal argument erupted between Plaintiff and Newbold. Semliatschenko left the room for a few minutes, and upon his return he terminated the meeting. (Id., ¶ 13). While Semliatschenko was not present, Plaintiff allegedly threatened Newbold. Newbold did not immediately report the threat, because he concluded that Plaintiff was not serious about hurting him. (Newbold Depo., Adams Cert. Ex. I, T. 14:2-4).

         On April 23, 2015, Plaintiff placed a call to "Operation RedBlock," - an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) helpline - to speak with a counselor or mental healthcare professional. (Second Amend. Compl., ¶ 14; Rollins Depo. T. 56:6-12)[2]. At the time, Plaintiff, was dealing with work related stress, marital issues, and his son was undergoing cancer treatment. (Rollins Depo. T. 60-61).

         Later that night, while Plaintiff was at his duty station, Plaintiff was approached by Amtrak Police and paramedics from the local hospital and asked whether he was contemplating suicide. Rollins denied same, and explained that he was having work and marital problems, but not contemplating suicide. Notwithstanding his response, he was taken to a local hospital for evaluation. Plaintiff was later released and determined not to have had suicidal thoughts and that he was not a danger to the railroad. (Amend. Compl. ¶ 15). Nevertheless, he was placed on medical leave, pending clearance to return to work. (Rollins Depo. T. 138:15-139:24).

         The next day, when Newbold arrived at work, he learned from co-workers about the intervention between Amtrak Police and Plaintiff the previous evening, and he became concerned about Plaintiffs emotional stability and fearful of the threats Plaintiff had made to him on March 12, 2015, and he reported the incident. (See Adams Cert. Ex. L, Incident/Investigation Report). Consequently, Semliatschenko decided to contact Amtrak Police pursuant to Amtrak rules related to workplace violence especially in light of Newbold's concerns. (Semliatschenko Depo., Adams Cert Ex. L, T 34:13-17, 35:8-21). Amtrak Police conducted an investigation and asked Newbold to submit a statement of what occurred. It stated that on March 12, 2015, Plaintiff had threatened him with bodily harm when he stated that "he would come down to Levittown [] and slide one in me."[3] There were no witnesses present when the incident occurred. (Newbold Statement, Adams's Cert. Ex K; Second Amend. Compl. ¶ 16).

         Amtrak Police generated a report of the complaint. (Adams Cert., Ex. L). Plaintiff denied making such a threat. (Amend. Compl., ¶ 17).

         Plaintiff, who had been placed on a medical leave and was seeing a counselor after the EAP/help line incident, was cleared to return to work in July 2015, so long as he provided documentation of continued care with a counselor to include at least 2 visits every 30 days until decreased or released by the counselor. (ECF No. 37-8 Plaintiffs medical record, pg. 3). In his evaluation e-mail, on June 30, 2015, Dr. Robert L. Tanenbaum, who spoke to Plaintiffs counselor, agreed that Plaintiff "appear[ed] to be emotionally stable. When he reached out for telephone assistance, he may have unintentionally created a higher level of concern about his wellbeing than he anticipated. That said I find him fit for his duties." (Id., pg. 5).

         After a brief period (length unclear) of returning to work, Plaintiff was again removed from work pending investigation on the Newbold incident. (Rollins Depo. T138:15-139:24).

         On August 10, 2015, an investigatory hearing was held before a neutral hearing officer, Christopher Stephens. (Adams Cert. Ex. J). At the hearing, Newbold testified that he had delayed reporting his complaint because "at the time, . . . [he] didn't think much about it. It was just a verbal altercation many that we had - - and didn't put much thought into it until some of the events that took place." This included the encounter between Amtrak Police and Plaintiff over his emotional state wherein Newbold noted "[Plaintiff] was going to try to somehow some way commit suicide." (Ex. J T. 40-41).

         On August 20, 2015, Stephens sent Plaintiff a copy of the decision which terminated him from his employment. (Adams Cert. Ex. Q).

         The decision identified the following charges:

(1) Violation of Amtrak's "Standard of Excellence" specifically in the context of the sections entitled Attending to Duties, and Professional and Personal Conduct.
(2) Violation of Amtrak's "Workplace Violence Policy," specifically in connection with the March 12, ...

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