Labor & Employment

Federal judge reluctantly upholds reinstatement of engineer who defecated on train connector

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A railroad engineer who defecated on a knuckle connecting train cars must get his job back as a result of an arbitration board decision, a federal judge has reluctantly ruled.

U.S. District Judge Brian Buescher said he was puzzled by the arbitration board’s conclusion that termination “was excessive” discipline, but railway labor law does not allow him to review the board’s decision on the merits.

The Lincoln Journal Star has coverage of the Nov. 21 decision.

Buescher, an appointee of President Donald Trump, ruled in the case of Matthew Lebsack, an 18-year employee of the Union Pacific Railroad Co. Lebsack defecated on a train-car knuckle Nov. 20, 2016, threw feces-covered toilet paper out of the locomotive window, and informed his manager that he had left a “present” for him, according to Buescher’s opinion.

Lebsack’s co-workers cleaned the feces using bottled water and paper towels.

At an investigation hearing, Lebsack admitted the incident and apologized for his behavior. He introduced evidence that he was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, and his wife had just left him at the time of the incident.

The railroad fired Lebsack, his union appealed and the matter was sent to an arbitration board. The union is the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division, known as SMART.

The arbitration board found that firing “was too harsh,” given Lebsack’s medical and psychological issues. The board said Lebsack should be reinstated if he successfully completes a physical and a psychological evaluation.

Union Pacific sought to vacate the decision and SMART sought to enforce it.

Buescher said that, under the Railway Labor Act, he was without authority to review the merits of the board’s interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement.

The issue “is not whether the arbitrator or arbitrators erred in interpreting the contract; it is not whether they clearly erred in interpreting the contract; it is not whether they grossly erred in interpreting the contract; it is whether they interpreted the contract,” Buescher wrote, citing a federal appeals court decision.

Buescher said the arbitration board’s decision fell within its discretion, although the case troubled him.

“This court is puzzled how the arbitration board in this matter came to the conclusion that Mr. Lebsack’s actions of purposely defecating on the knuckle of his train and leaving his feces for others to clean up somehow did not constitute conduct worthy of upholding his termination,” Buescher wrote.

“As a train engineer, Mr. Lebsack operates large pieces of equipment through public spaces in our country. In his closing statement at the arbitration hearing, Mr. Lebsack’s attorney even noted that [he] ‘transports some of the most hazardous of cargo trains.’ … Upon being given such an important charge that can impact the well-being and safety of the public, Mr. Lebsack should be expected to have better judgment than that which he exhibited.”

Hat tip to Fox News.

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