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Johnson v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

September 25, 2007

HAMMIE JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John Gleeson, District Judge

FOR ONLINE PUBLICATION ONLY

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Hammie Johnson brings this action pursuant to the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq., ("FELA") for certain injuries to his neck and back allegedly resulting from "cumulative trauma" he sustained while working for the National Railroad Passenger Corporation ("Amtrak").*fn1 Compl. ¶ 9. Amtrak moves for summary judgment in its favor. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

BACKGROUND*fn2

Johnson worked for Amtrak and its predecessor from 1974 to 2002, first as a coach cleaner, then as a car inspector, then for twelve years as a supervisor of equipment maintenance and an assistant wreck master. According to Johnson, the latter two jobs required much heavy work, including carrying and deploying 160-pound hydraulic jacks (so-called "ram jets"), setting wood blocks, crawling in and out from under cars, digging trenches, and moving rail and heavy equipment. See Johnson Dep. 36-39; 54. Johnson testified that he had to carry heavy equipment himself "[a]ll the time" because Amtrak did not supply wagon trucks, even though Johnson requested them. Id. at 54-55; see also Johnson's Rule 56.1 Response ¶ 1.

Johnson has been diagnosed with multi-level degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, spinal stenosis of his C4 through C7-T1 vertebrae, and several instances of disc herniation, all of which resulted, Johnson claims, from the "cumulative trauma incurred through the performance of everyday job functions" at Amtrak. Pl.'s Answers to Def.'s Interrogatories ¶ ¶ 4, 5; see also Johnson's Rule 56.1 Response ¶ 2. Johnson testified that the first time he remembers experiencing pain in his neck or back was while he was working in a maintenance shop in October 2000 -- Johnson reported the pain to his supervisor and saw a doctor for it that day.*fn3 Dep. at 44-45; 50-52; see also Amtrak's Rule 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 7, 18-19; Johnson's Rule 56.1 Response ¶¶ 7, 18-19. Johnson's doctor diagnosed him with cervical radiculopathy and, after an MRI, multiple cervical disc herniations. See Bonventre Aff. Ex. G, H; see also Amtrak's Rule 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 7-9; Johnson's Rule 56.1 Response ¶¶ 7-9. In 2002, two MRIs of Johnson's cervical spine indicated multilevel degenerative disc disease. See Bonventre Aff. Ex. J, L, N; see also Amtrak's Rule 56.1 Statement ¶¶ 10, 12, 14; Johnson's Rule 56.1 Response ¶¶ 10, 12, 14. On July 8, 2003, Johnson underwent an anterior cervical discetomy. See Bonventre Aff. Ex. Q; see also Amtrak's Rule 56.1 Statement ¶ 17; Johnson's Rule 56.1 Response ¶ 17.

As the foregoing citations to the record illustrate, the parties are in agreement that Johnson's cervical herniations and multilevel degenerative disc disease were diagnosed in 2000 and 2002, respectively, and that he underwent surgery for his conditions in July 2003. Nevertheless, as evidence for the proposition that his neck pain did not begin until late 2003, Johnson points to a report by Dr. Bradley J. Cohen, which states that Johnson's "symptoms began shortly before 2004." Hannon Aff. Ex. B.

The parties dispute when Johnson discovered that his pain was caused by his job at Amtrak. Johnson repeatedly testified that he did not know while he was working that the heavy work was causing his pain. See Johnson Dep. 55-56. According to Johnson, he reported to his supervisor that he felt pain while walking on the railroad track, but he also "shook it off because [he] thought it was just age." Id. at 52. Johnson conceded, however, that "as of now, I think, yes, lifting those heavy rams and those big bars that we had to carry over the rails and dragging them underneath the equipment, setting them up by yourself" might have stressed his neck, in addition to "[c]hanging the wheels out," and lifting "heavy 75-pound boxes." Id. at 56. Nevertheless, Johnson maintains that he did not learn the injuries were work-related until he was told so by Cohen in January 2004. Id. at 83; Johnson's Rule 56.1 Response ¶ 13.

For its part, Amtrak argues Johnson believed his injuries were work-related as early as 2002. It points to a medical questionnaire dated October 7, 2002, in which Johnson answered in the affirmative to the question, "Is your condition due to auto accident or job related injury?" Bonventre Aff. Ex. M.

Johnson filed his complaint in this action on August 14, 2006.

DISCUSSION

Amtrak argues that Johnson's FELA claim is time-barred as a matter of law. Johnson argues that a genuine dispute exists as to whether he knew or should have known that he sustained a "cumulative trauma injury" caused by his work at Amtrak. Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Pl. Br.") 4. Because I conclude as a matter of law that Johnson knew of his injuries and should have known of their cause more than three years before he commenced this action, I agree that his claim is time-barred.

A. Standard of Review

A moving party is entitled to summary judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party must demonstrate that no genuine issue exists as to any material fact. Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., Ltd. P'ship, 22 F.3d 1219, 1223 (2d Cir. 1994). For summary judgment purposes, a fact is "material" when its resolution "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). An issue is "genuine" when "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. Accordingly, the test for whether an issue is genuine requires "the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts [to] be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quotation ...


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