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Wooten v. BNSF Railway Co.

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

September 18, 2018

BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, a Delaware corporation, Defendant.


          Dana L. Christensen, Chief Judge

         United States Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch entered his Findings and Recommendation and Order in this case on May 29, 2018, recommending the denial of the Parties' cross-motions for partial summary judgment on Plaintiff Zachary Wooten's ("Wooten") Federal Railroad Safety Act ("FRSA") claim and Defendant BNSF Railway Company's ("BNSF") Motion for Summary Judgment on Wooten's Locomotive Inspection Act ("LIA") claim. (Doc. 200 at 49.) BNSF timely objected to Judge Lynch's recommendations and also objected to his order precluding the deposition of Greg Smith and denying BNSF's motion to compel an examination of Wooten's cell phone. (Docs. 218; 220.) Consequently, BNSF is entitled to de novo review of those findings and recommendations to which it has specifically objected. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). Absent objection, this Court reviews findings and recommendations for clear error. United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc); Thomas v. Am, 474 U.S. 140, 149 (1985). Clear error exists if the Court is left with a "definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." United States v. Syrax, 235 F.3d 422, 427 (9th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). Additionally, when a party objects to the magistrate's order on a pretrial matter, this Court may reconsider the magistrate's order if the party "show[s] that the magistrate judge's order is clearly erroneous or contrary to law." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A).

         "A party makes a proper objection by identifying the parts of the magistrate's disposition that the party finds objectionable and presenting legal argument and supporting authority, such that the district court is able to identify the issues and the reasons supporting a contrary result." Montana Shooting Sports Ass'n v. Holder, 2010 WL 4102940, at *2 (D. Mont. Oct. 18, 2010) (citation omitted). "It is not sufficient for the objecting party to merely restate arguments made before the magistrate or to incorporate those arguments by reference." Id. Congress created magistrate judges to provide district judges "additional assistance in dealing with a caseload that was increasing far more rapidly than the number of judgeships." Thomas, 474 U.S. at 153. There is no benefit to the judiciary "if the district court[] is required to review the entire matter de novo because the objecting party merely repeats the arguments rejected by the magistrate. In such situations, this Court follows other courts that have overruled the objections without analysis." Montana Shooting Sports Ass'n2010 WL 4102940, at *2 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         For the following reasons, Judge Lynch's Findings and Recommendation and Order will be adopted in full.


         I. BNSF's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Wooten's FRSA Claim

Under the Federal Railroad Safety Act:
A railroad carrier engaged in interstate or foreign commerce, . . . may not discharge, demote, suspend, reprimand, or in any other way discriminate against an employee if such discrimination is due, in whole or in part, to the employee's lawful, good faith act done, or perceived by the employer to have been done or about to be done- to notify, or attempt to notify, the railroad carrier or the Secretary of Transportation of a work-related personal injury or work-related illness of an employee.

49 U.S.C. § 20109(a)(4). Pursuant to § 20109(d)(2)(A), employees alleging violation of § 20109(a) must abide by the procedures set forth in 49 U.S.C. § 42121(b).

         Claims under the FRSA, as governed by § 42121(b), are analyzed under a burden-shifting framework which "is much more protective of plaintiff-employees" than other burden-shifting frameworks. Araujo v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, Inc., 708 F.3d 152, 158 (3d Cir. 2013). First, Plaintiff must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that: (1) he engaged in a protected activity as defined by statute; (2) the employer knew he engaged in the protected activity; (3) he suffered an unfavorable personnel action; and (4) the protected activity was a contributing factor in the unfavorable personnel action. 49 U.S.C. § 42121(b); Araujo, 708 F.3d at 157; Tamosaitis v. URS Inc., 781 F.3d 468, 481 (9th Cir. 2015). If Plaintiff makes this prima facie showing, then "the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate, 'by clear and convincing evidence, that the employer would have taken the same unfavorable personnel action in the absence of that behavior.'" Araujo, 708 F.3d at 159 (quoting § 42l2l(b)(2)(B)(ii)).

         Of relevance here, the Parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the fourth element of Wooten's prima facie case. Judge Lynch concluded, and this Court agrees, that summary judgment is not appropriate on this element in favor of either party. Wooten has come forward with sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether BNSF retaliated against him for reporting an on the job injury. While BNSF is correct that the district judge must "determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to," (Doc. 218 at 4 (quoting L.R. 72(b)(3))) it is incorrect in its assertion that the Court is obligated to do so in this case.

         An objection to a magistrate's findings and recommendations is not a vehicle for the losing party to relitigate its case, which is precisely what BNSF has done here. In these situations, this Court follows other courts that have overruled the objections without analysis. Hagberg v. Astrue, 2009 WL 3386595, at *1 (D. Mont. Oct. 14, 2009). BNSF's only addition to the arguments already weighed and discounted by Judge Lynch is its assertion that a deposition which occurred after the issuance of Judge Lynch's Findings and Recommendations and Order provides information refuting any basis upon which any reasonable fact-finder could find retaliatory motive-namely, the testimony of one Mark Premrock stating that Wooten's supervisor's overall rating dropped from prior years. (Doc. 218 at 12.) The Court does not share BNSF's conviction concerning the conclusiveness of its new evidence and will leave the weighing of this unresolved factual dispute to the jury.

         BNSF further requested summary judgment on Wooten's FRSA claim for failure to exhaust as well as on Wooten's punitive damages claim. Judge Lynch recommended denying summary judgment on both fronts. BNSF's objections to Judge Lynch's recommendations regarding punitive damages and failure to exhaust administrative remedies are again deficient as they are nearly verbatim recitations of the arguments and authority already before Judge Lynch. Consequently, all of BNSF's objections to Judge Lynch's recommendation regarding Wooten's FRSA claim are overruled.

         II. Wooten's Motion for a Protective Order Precluding the Deposition ofGreg Smith and BNSF's Motion to Compel the ...

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