Federal Pre-Emption of Driver’s Lawsuit No Defense

By James Hatch

Nov. 26, 2007

Herbert Conley, a truck driver of 15 years for Yellow Freight System Inc., was terminated in 2003. Before his termination, Conley had complained that his supervisor had encouraged drivers to drive at unsafe speeds to increase efficiency. After he complained, Conley had received a warning that he had failed to sign in and out of work as required by his union labor agreement. Conley was advised that the company intended to fire him and he continued working for several months until he was discharged after a hearing.

Conley filed a lawsuit in Tennessee state court, alleging that requiring a driver to operate a truck while fatigued violated federal safety standards and that he had been terminated for “refusing to engage in illegal activities.” More specifically, Conley alleged that his termination violated the Tennessee Public Protection Act and state law on retaliatory discharge.

Yellow Freight transferred the case to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. The company filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss Conley’s claims on the grounds that his claims were blocked by the federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act. The district court refused to dismiss the action because the act did not pre-empt state law claims and did not prevent lawsuits under state law for retaliatory discharge.

Concluding that there were factual issues about the company’s motive for firing Conley, the district court refused to dismiss his claim under the Tennessee Public Protection Act. However, the court did dismiss his retaliatory termination claim, reasoning that such claims are only available to workers employed “at will.” Conley’s employment was under a labor agreement. Conley v. Yellow Freight Sys. Inc. ED Tenn., No. 1:06-cv-164 (10/9/07).

Impact: Many federal laws regulate working conditions, including those for over-the-road drivers. They will typically not foreclose state common law claims for wrongful termination.

Workforce Management, November 5, 2007Subscribe Now!

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with