The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s recent favorable decision in Lemon v. Norfolk Southern Railway Corporation, announced its rejection of the chain-of-events theory of causation in whistleblower cases. In doing so, the Sixth Circuit joins the DOL’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) in rejecting this theory of causation. These decisions, while announced in cases brought under the Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA), will also apply to cases under Section 211 of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 (ERA) because it contains the same “contributing factor” causation standard as the FRSA.
For background, in whistleblower cases under statutes containing the “contributing factor” standard, including the ERA, complainants must show, among other things, that a protected activity somehow contributed to an adverse employment action taken against them. But sometimes an alleged protected activity (e.g., filing an accident report) leads to an internal inquiry into the accident or related events that uncovers a performance deficiency or even wrongdoing on the part of the complainant that results in an adverse employment action against the complainant (e.g., a written warning, suspension without pay, or termination). The question then becomes whether the protected activity or the subsequent discovery of wrongdoing was the “contributing factor” in the adverse employment action taken.