ABSTRACT: In a commercial motor carrier case alleging retaliation against a driver for reporting safety violations, a driver’s misconduct before an administrative law judge did not cause a delay that deprived the federal district court of jurisdiction, according to the Eighth Circuit.
Federal law prohibits employers from retaliating against commercial motor carrier drivers for reporting violations of federal safety regulations. An employee alleging retaliation may file a complaint with the U.S. Secretary of Labor. By law, if the Secretary of Labor does not issue a decision within 210 days after filing the complaint, the claimant may proceed directly to a U.S. District Court. However, if the delay in issuing a decision is the bad faith of the claimant, the District Court lacks jurisdiction.
In Wilson v. CTW Transportation Services, Inc., the Eighth Circuit considered how the timing of a claimant’s bad faith bears on the District Court’s subject matter jurisdiction. On October 7, 2020, Avery Wilson filed an administrative complaint against CTW Transportation Services alleging his contract to haul freight was terminated for his reporting safety violations, in violation of 49 USC § 31105(a). CTW responded that Wilson was terminated due to his tractor being unusable and failure to complete certain paperwork.
In February 2021, the administrative law judge ordered discovery to close on May 25 and trial to start on July 27, which meant the 210-day deadline would expire on May 5, 2021. On March 30, during his deposition, Wilson testified his attorney had not produced all documents Wilson had provided. CTW issued requests for those documents, and they were not produced until May 27. CTW believed some of the documents were fabricated and for the next two months sought forensic analysis of Wilson’s phone to authenticate the documents. The ALJ ordered Wilson to turn over his phone, but Wilson refused, instead firing his attorney, and proceeding pro se.
The ALJ eventually rescheduled the trial for September 8, because of the difficulties in discovery. On August 31, Wilson notified the ALJ that he intended to file a complaint in federal court because of the delay in issuing an administrative decision.
CTW moved to dismiss the administrative complaint based on Wilson’s bad faith. The ALJ found Wilson’s refusal to participate in discovery amounted to bad faith but allowed him two weeks to file in district court and dismissed the administrative complaint with prejudice. In federal court, Wilson asserted his retaliation claim, and CTW moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because of Wilson’s bad faith delay. The district court agreed that it lacked jurisdiction due to Wilson’s bad faith and Wilson appealed.
In his brief, which the Court of Appeals noted failed to strictly comply with the rules, Wilson argued that any alleged bad faith behavior occurred after the 210-day window expired on May 5, and the district court erred in dismissing his complaint for lack of jurisdiction. In its brief, CTW argued that Wilson failed to meet his burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction in that he failed to show that his bad faith conduct did not cause a delay in the administrative proceedings. CTW also argued that an ALJ’s scheduling order that sets a hearing date more than 210 days from filing would always allow complainants to engage in dilatory tactics before the ALJ knowing they could always file in federal court later. Importantly, actions under 31105(c) provide for de novo review of the complainant’s retaliation claims. CTW argued that finding for Wilson would only incentivize bad faith conduct before a Department of Labor ALJ.
The Eighth Circuit nonetheless rejected CTW’s argument, finding that the plain language of § 31005(c) only has two requirements: that the Secretary did not issue a decision in 210 days; and the delay is caused by the bad faith of the employee. “Policy considerations . . . are impermissible bases for statutory interpretation when, as here, the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous.” The Court of Appeals found that the district court relied almost exclusively on Wilson’s alleged bad faith conduct occurring after the May 5 deadline, and despite some allegations of bad faith prior to May 5, the district court did not specifically find that the pre-May 5 conduct actually caused the Secretary of Labor to miss the deadline. As a result, the dismissal of Wilson’s case by the district court was vacated and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.
The record of Wilson’s behavior, as described in CTW’s appellate brief, is certainly shocking and demonstrates bad faith on his part. Congress has enabled administrative agencies to process claims for retaliation based, in part, on the agency’s expertise and lower administrative costs, the ultimate goal being speedy resolution of claims. Those goals are all thwarted when a party refuses to participate in good faith.
Although the district court only analyzed subject matter jurisdiction under § 31005(c), general administrative principles require claimants to exhaust administrative remedies. Although federal courts do not appear to have squarely addressed the issue, jurisprudential considerations may justify dismissal for bad faith conduct occurring after the 210 day threshold. For example, under Title VII and other federal statutes, failure to participate in good faith can amount to a failure to exhaust administrative remedies. On remand, the district court might conclude that Wilson’s bad faith behavior so frustrated the administrative process that he failed to exhaust remedies, independent of the federal statutory scheme.
The court’s opinion illustrates several key points for consideration by employers and legal practitioners alike:
- Bad faith conduct by employees occurring after the 210-day window for decisions by the Secretary of Labor in in commercial transportation retaliation claims will not affect subject matter jurisdiction at the district court level.
- Any bad faith conduct prior to the 210-day window still may preclude subject matter jurisdiction and result in dismissal of the complaint.
- Too many parties, and even some attorneys, give short shrift to administrative proceedings. Rather than another hoop for litigants to jump through, the administrative process is crucial not only to speedy resolution, but also can have a serious impact on subsequent litigation.
* Andrew Snively, 2023 Summer Law Clerk, assisted in the research and drafting of this post. Snively is a rising 3L student at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law.