Department of Labor judge, Hon. Lee J. Romero, agreed with truck driver T.J. Graff that Graff was discharged by Cargo Express in retaliation for protected activities under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) of 1982. Graff received $65,767 in back pay along with $25,000 in punitive damages from the Boise, Idaho-based carrier. Judge Romero also ordered that Graff be reinstated by Cargo Express.
In his ruling, Judge Romero explained that under the employee protection provisions of the STAA, it is unlawful for an employer to impose an adverse action on an employee who has complained or raised concerns about possible violations of DOT regulations or who has refused to drive because he has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to himself or the public.
Graff argued that he was terminated by Cargo Express because of his numerous complaints that he had not received satisfactory repairs to his assigned truck after reports of air leaks and oil leaks at the turbo, and his subsequent refusal to drive it. His 20 years of experience as a driver led him to believe that the leaks could be dangerous, potentially resulting in a loss of power to the truck or even a possible jackknife situation.
Cargo Express claimed Graff was fired for a history of not meeting monthly mileage standards.
Due to earlier downtime from necessary repairs to his truck, Graff says he received letters of concern from Cargo Express about not meeting his monthly miles. Graff’s side business of selling truck accessories and gifts online was another bone of contention, he said, although he testified that he spent only three to five hours a week on it when he was off duty.
Later, when Graff noticed air leaks and oil leaks at the turbo, he reported them to the Cargo Express office, and arrangements were made for him to take the truck in for repairs. After several repair attempts, Graff still felt the truck had not been sufficiently repaired to the point that he could shake his concerns for his own safety. He then refused to drive the truck.
According to Graff, Cargo Express told him the truck had been satisfactorily repaired, and a leaking turbo was not a critical safety issue. He was to either drive the truck back to Boise, or a recovery driver would be sent to his current location. Saying he felt intimidated and fearful of losing his job, Graff continued on and delivered his load. Upon returning to Boise, he was soon called into the Cargo Express office and terminated.
Much testimony was held during the trial on whether or not turbo leaks were a critical safety issue, but Judge Romero ruled that Graff engaged in a protected activity of the STAA, because he reasonably perceived the leaks as a safety concern. He also said the fact that Graff’s termination occurred so close to the time of those safety complaints was persuasive evidence of the company’s motive.