Yowell worked for the Fort Worth Western Railroad Company. The company's safety policy obligated Yowell to report any workplace injury immediately, and such reports constitute protected activity under the Federal Railroad Safety Act. After working an overnight shift, Yowell reported he had hurt his knee during that just-completed shift. The company investigated the incident to determine the cause of the injury and whether Yowell needed medical attention. During that investigation, Yowell admitted that he actually injured his knee sometime the week before but had failed to report it. The company subsequently fired Yowell, citing his violation of the company's policy demanding that employees report workplace injuries immediately.
Yowell claimed the company violated FRSA by firing him in retaliation for reporting a job-related injury. After a series of administrative appeals, the Department of Labor's Administrative Review Board sided with the company, concluding that the railroad terminated his employment because he failed to report his injury promptly and that his eventual acknowledgement of the injury was not a “contributing factor” for FRSA purposes.
The issue before the Court was "how to evaluate a factual scenario in which an employee’s protected act itself reveals, or at least leads to the discovery of, conduct for which discipline is otherwise appropriate." After a thorough review of several out-of-circuit cases discussing FRSA's contributing-factor standard, the Court announced the following standard:
Under the FRSA, when an employee engages in a protected activity such as reporting a workplace injury, that employee is not insulated from what would otherwise be appropriate discipline for misconduct that becomes known to the employer at that time or during the course of the employer’s addressing the protected activity. In simple terms, a protected activity does not by itself shield an employee from the ramifications of workplace misconduct.
In Yowell's case, the Court explained, "there was unchallenged evidence that it was not the fact of reporting an injury but the failure to report promptly an earlier injury that caused Yowell to be discharged." Accordingly, the Court denied the petition for review.