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English v. General Electric Co.

    Brief Fact Summary
    Vera English (Plaintiff), a laboratory technician at a nuclear plant managed by General Electric Company (GE) (Defendant), complained to management and to the federal government about safety violations at the plant.  She was fired after intentionally failing to clean a work area contaminated with uranium during an earlier shift.  She filed a retaliation claim, and the court dismissed the claim on the ground that federal law preempted it.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law
    Federal law does not preempt a state-law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress by the whistleblower at a nuclear power plant.

    Facts
    Vera English (Plaintiff) was a laboratory technician at a nuclear plant managed by General Electric Company (GE) (Defendant).  She brought a complaint to the management of GE (Defendant) and to the federal government regarding her co-workers failure to clean up radioactive spills in the laboratory.  In response to Defendant’s failure to address the issue, Plaintiff intentionally did not clean a work area contaminated with uranium during an earlier shift.  She outlined the contaminated areas with red tape to make the spills obvious.  A few days passed, and she called her supervisor’s attention to the fact that the areas still had not been cleaned.  Defendant stopped work in order to inspect and clean the laboratory, and then charged Plaintiff with a knowing failure to clean up radioactive contamination.  Plaintiff was reassigned and eventually fired.  She filed a complaint with the Labor Department, charging Defendant with violation of § 210(a) of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which makes it unlawful for a nuclear industry employer to retaliate against an employee for reporting safety violations.  An administrative law judge found a § 210(a) violation, but the Labor Department dismissed the complaint as untimely.  Plaintiff then filed a diversity action in district court, seeking compensatory and punitive damages from Defendant, raising a state-law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other things.  The court dismissed the claim on the ground that it conflicted with three aspects of § 210 and was therefore preempted.  The court of appeals affirmed.

    Issue
    Does federal law preempt a state-law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress by the whistleblower at a nuclear power plant?

    Held
    (Blackmun, J.)  No.  Federal law does not preempt a state-law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress by the whistleblower at a nuclear power plant.  There are three different kinds of preemption:  express preemption, field preemption, and implied conflict preemption.  First, Congress has not explicitly preempted her state-law tort action by inserting specific preemptive language into any of its laws governing the nuclear industry.  Second, there is no clear indication that Congress, by enacting § 210, intended to preempt all state tort laws that traditionally have been available to claimants who claim outrageous conduct by an employer.  While § 210 shows some relation to the field of nuclear safety, its main purpose was the protection of employees.  In order for a state law to fall within the preempted zone, it must have some direct and substantial effect on the decisions made by those who build or operate nuclear facilities concerning radiological safety levels, and this claim’s effect on the nuclear safety decisions made by those who build and run nuclear facilities is not direct and substantial enough.  Third, and lastly, English’s (Plaintiff) claim does not conflict with specific aspects of § 210.  Neither the text nor the legislative history of § 210(g) reflects a congressional desire to preclude all relief, including state remedies, for a whistleblower who commits a safety violation on purpose.  Even if that were the intent of Congress, the federal interest would be served by preempting recovery by violators of safety standards.  In the present case, the administrative law judge found that English (Plaintiff) did not commit a violation intentionally.  Further, unless there is some specific suggestion in the text or legislative history otherwise, the failure of § 210(a) violations does not imply a congressional intent to bar a state action that allows such an award.  Plus, the timeframes provided for processing § 210 claims do not reflect a congressional decision that, in order to encourage the reporting of safety violations and retaliatory behavior, no whistleblower should be able to recover under any other law after the time for filing under § 210 has expired.  Many retaliatory incidents are a response to safety complaints made to the federal government, therefore, the government is already aware of these safety violations even if employees do not invoke § 210’s remedial provisions.  And lastly, the suggestion that employees will waive their § 210 options and rely on state remedies only is just too speculative a basis on which to rest a preemption finding.  Reversed and remanded.

    Discussion
    Note that briefs of amici curiae advising reversal were filed for the attorney general of North Carolina, for the National Conference of State Legislatures, and for the Plaintiff Employment Lawyers Association.  Briefs of amici curiae advising affirmance were filed for the Nuclear Management and Resources Council, Inc.


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