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Addis v. Dep't of Labor

July 30, 2009


Petition for Review of an Order of the Department of Labor. No. 05-118.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Tinder, Circuit Judge


Before POSNER, WOOD, and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

Heather Addis resigned from her job as Operations Supervisor at the Dresden Nuclear Power Station (operated by Exelon) after an argument with her supervisor over the company's requirement that Addis make regular entries in the files of the employees that she supervised. Her supervisor felt her file entries were not timely and not sufficiently critical; Addis thought the requirement was pointless at best, and at worst detrimental to her ability to focus on plant security.

After her resignation, but during her two weeks' notice,*fn1 she filed an internal complaint with Exelon's Employee Concerns Program (ECP) that the disputed reporting requirements (and plant management's insistence on them) threatened the plant's safety. Then, before the date that her resignation was to become effective, Addis had a change of heart and sought to remain at her job; she conveyed her desire to stay in a letter to Dresden's operations director.

Between Addis's attempt to rescind the resignation and the end of her notice period, Exelon management held two meetings regarding Addis. The first, ostensibly held to discuss the ECP concerns, involved a human resources employee, an ECP staffer, and Exelon's general counsel, among others. The second meeting included both human resources and the general counsel, but also the top management of the Dresden plant. The purpose of this conference call was a discussion of whether to allow Addis to withdraw her resignation, but her ECP report was discussed in this meeting as well. The ultimate outcome of this meeting was management's decision to accept her resignation in light of her refusal to comply with the record keeping requirement. She was notified at the end of her two weeks' notice that she could not continue at Dresden.

I. Procedural History

Pursuant to the Energy Reorganization Act (ERA), 42 U.S.C. § 5851(b), Addis filed a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) on April 5, 2004, alleging that Exelon did not allow her to rescind her resignation because of the safety complaints she made to ECP in violation of the statute. Id. § 5851(a). OSHA's Area Director conducted an investigation and found that Addis had not sustained her burden of proving that she was retaliated against. Addis then requested a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who dismissed the case after the hearing, finding likewise that Addis failed to sustain the burden of proving that her protected activity was a contributing factor in her termination. Addis appealed to the Department of Labor's Administrative Review Board (ARB), who accepted the ALJ's conclusion and dismissed the complaint. She petitions this court for review of the Labor Department's dismissal. Id. § 5851(c).

One appellate assertion will be cast to the side before we begin. Exelon argues that res judicata bars us from hearing Addis's petition for review, because an Illinois state court has already found against her on a state retaliatory discharge claim based on her termination from Exelon. What Exelon ignores is that she was unable to bring her ERA claim (which requires administrative adjudication) before the Illinois state court and unable to bring her Illinois claim before the Department of Labor. This precludes the application of res judicata. See AlvearVelez v. Mukasey, 540 F.3d 672, 678 & n.4 (7th Cir. 2008).

II. Standard of Review

The ERA protects an employee from being discriminated against for filing a complaint about plant safety. Discrimination is defined as an "unfavorable personnel action," 42 U.S.C. § 5851(b)(3), in retaliation for the employee's complaints about nuclear safety (complaints protected by 42 U.S.C. § 5851(a)(1)(A)-(F)). If an employee believes that she has been retaliated against, she may complain to the Department of Labor, and specifically OSHA. After an investigation, the Secretary of Labor (acting through OSHA) may find a violation "if the complainant has demonstrated that any [protected] behavior . . . was a contributing factor in the unfavorable personnel action" unless the "employer demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same unfavorable personnel action in the absence of such behavior." Id. § 5851(b)(3)(C)-(D). Under the ERA, OSHA gets the first crack at investigating an employee complaint. The employee may then challenge OSHA's determination before an ALJ and seek review of the ALJ's decision in front of the ARB and then review in a federal court of appeals.

Our review of an ARB decision is conducted according to the Administrative Procedures Act. Id. § 5851(c)(1) (referencing 5 U.S.C. §§ 701-06). We can only set aside the Board's decision if it is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law" or "in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, or short of statutory right" or "unsupported by substantial evidence." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2); see Kahn v. U.S. Sec'y of Labor, 64 F.3d 271, 276 (7th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is that which is "more than a mere scintilla" but it "may be less than a preponderance of the evidence . . . and a reviewing body may not set aside an inference merely because it finds the opposite conclusion more reasonable." Kahn, 64 F.3d at 276 (citations omitted).

The task for the Department of Labor in Addis's case was to determine whether Exelon's refusal to let her return to work was an "unfavorable personnel action"and if so, whether the protected action was a contributing factor to the refusal. In the Department's final decision (the ARB decision), the ARB punted on the unfavorable action issue (although the ALJ had found that Addis did not suffer an unfavorable personnel action) and affirmed the ALJ's decision on the ground that Addis failed to prove that her complaint was a contributing factor to the termination. The ARB adopted the ALJ's findings in their entirety on the contributing factor issue and we will therefore refer to the ALJ's decision throughout our discussion of this issue. Both the ...

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