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David Rollins worked for Amtrak for 23 years until August 2015 as a supervisor in North Brunswick, N.J. overseeing 20 employees performing track maintenance. His normal supervisor went on vacation, and Rollins experienced tension and stress with his temporary supervisor, Josh Newbold. Rollins reported to another supervisor, Semliatschenko, his concerns about safety due to what he perceived as insufficient coordination with Newbold. A meeting among all three was arranged on March 12, 2015 in which there was a heated argument. Semliatschenko left the room for a few minutes during which Newbold later claimed that Rollins threatened him with bodily harm. Newbold did not report the alleged threat for six weeks.
On April 23, 2015, Rollins placed a call to ‘Operation RedBlock,” an employee assistance program helpline. He said he was dealing with work and family stress issues. At his duty station that night, Rollins was approached by Amtrak Police and paramedics from the local hospital asking him whether he was contemplating suicide. Rollins denied suicidal thoughts and admitted simply work and family stress. He noted his son was dealing with cancer treatment. He was taken to a local hospital and later released. The hospital determined Rollins did not have suicidal thoughts and was not a danger to the railroad. He was placed on medical leave pending clearance to return to work.
When he came to work the next day, Newbold found out about the incident the night before involving Rollins, and Newbold became concerned about Rollins’ emotional stability. Newbold said that he was fearful about the threat that Rollins allegedly made on March 12, 2015, and he then reported the alleged threat for the first time. He said that Rollins threatened to “come down to Levittown and slide one in me.”
Rollins was cleared to return to work in July 2015. However, an investigation with a neutral hearing officer ensued at this point over the alleged threat against Newbold. That led to a hearing on August 10, 2015. In the hearing Newbold explained that he did not report the threat for the first six weeks because he did not think Rollins had been serious about harming him initially. He said he became concerned about Rollins’ emotional stability when he came to work on April 24, 2015 and found out about the hospital visit. The hearing officer recommended termination of Rollins’ employment in part for a violation of the Amtrak Workplace Anti-Violence Policy. Rollins made multiple appeals without success and then filed a civil suit alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
In his suit Rollins argued that Amtrak discriminated against him on the basis of a perceived disability. He contended that Amtrak perceived him as having a mental disability on account of his call to operation RedBlock and his discussion with a counsellor who alerted Amtrak Police. He further argued that his firing was based on a pretext that he had engaged in an act of violence at his workplace.
Amtrak moved to dismiss the case. Its management denied having any discriminatory animus against Rollins and conceded only that one co-employee, Newbold, could have had any discriminatory animus against him.
The federal court rejected the motion for summary judgment filed by Amtrak: “Based on the facts provided by the parties, one can plausibly argue that Newbold and Amtrak management were motivated by discriminatory animus. Defendant received Newbold’s complaint for an alleged threat that occurred weeks prior thereto, the morning after Plaintiff’s call to Operation RedBlock. A jury may determine that the request for psychological services was the motivation to seek Rollins’ dismissal.”
Timing was the problem Amtrak faced in winning its motion for summary judgment. The alleged threat by Rollins against Newbold occurred on March 12, 2015 but was not reported until the day after Rollins was taken to a hospital and found to have no suicidal thoughts, some six weeks later. The report of the alleged threat then led directly to the termination of Rollins. In the end the Court believed Rollins had made out a sufficient case to allow a jury trial on whether Amtrak wrongfully perceived him as having a mental disability and discriminated against him on that basis. The case can be found at Rollins v. National Railroad Passenger Corp., 2018 A.D. Cases 336982 (D.N.J. September 18, 2018).
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.