ENGLISH V. GENERAL ELEC. CO., 496 U. S. 72 (1990)

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U.S. Supreme Court

English v. General Elec. Co., 496 U.S. 72 (1990)

English v. General Electric Company

No. 89-152

Argued April 25, 1990

Decided June 4, 1990

496 U.S. 72


Petitioner English, a laboratory technician at a nuclear facility operated by respondent General Electric Company (GE), complained to GE's management and to the Federal Government about several perceived violations of nuclear safety standards at the facility, including the failure of her coworkers to clean up radioactive spills in the laboratory. Frustrated by GE's failure to address her concerns, English on one occasion deliberately failed to clean a work table contaminated with uranium during an earlier shift. Instead, she outlined the contaminated areas with red tape to make them conspicuous and, a few days later, called her supervisor's attention to the fact that the marked-off areas still had not been cleaned. Shortly after work was halted for inspection and cleaning of the laboratory, GE charged English with a knowing failure to clean up radioactive contamination, temporarily assigned her to other work, and ultimately discharged her. She then filed a complaint with the Secretary of Labor, alleging that GE's actions violated § 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. Although an administrative law judge (ALJ) found a § 210(a) violation, the Secretary dismissed the complaint as untimely under the 30-day limitations period provided by § 210(b)(1). Subsequently, English filed a diversity action seeking compensatory and punitive damages from GE in the District Court, raising, inter alia, a state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. While rejecting GE's argument that the latter claim fell within a field -- nuclear safety -- that had been completely preempted by the Federal Government, the court nevertheless dismissed the claim on the ground that it conflicted with three particular aspects of § 210 and was therefore preempted. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: English's state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress is not preempted by federal law. Pp. 496 U. S. 78-90.

(a) The claim is not barred on a field preemption theory. After reviewing the relevant statutory provisions and legislative history, the Court in Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Comm'n, 461 U. S. 190, concluded that "the Federal Government has occupied the entire field of nuclear safety concerns,"

Page 496 U. S. 73

id. at 461 U. S. 212, and expressed the view that Congress intended that only the "Government should regulate the radiological safety aspects involved in the construction and operation of a nuclear plant," id. at 461 U. S. 205. English's action, however, does not fall within the boundaries of the preempted field as so defined, since the state tort law at issue is not motivated by safety concerns, see id. at 461 U. S. 213, and since the claim's actual effect on the nuclear safety decisions made by those who build and run nuclear facilities is not sufficiently direct and substantial, cf. Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U. S. 238. It is thus not surprising that there is no evidence of the necessary "clear and manifest" intent by Congress to preempt such claims. Pp. 496 U. S. 80-86.

(b) English's claim does not conflict with particular aspects of § 210. First, neither the text nor the legislative history of § 210(g) -- which provides that "Subsection (a) of this section [the prohibition on employer retaliation] shall not apply" where an employee "deliberately causes a violation of any requirement of this Act or the Atomic Energy Act" -- reflects a congressional desire to preclude all relief, including state remedies, to a whistleblower who deliberately commits a safety violation. Even if that were Congress' intent, the federal interest would be served by preempting recovery by violators of safety standards. Here, the ALJ found that English did not deliberately commit a violation. Second, absent some specific suggestion in the text or legislative history, the failure of § 210 to provide general authorization for the Secretary to award punitive damages for § 210(a) violations does not imply a congressional intent to bar a state action, like English's, that permits such an award. Third, the expeditious timeframes provided for the processing of § 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. Since many retaliatory incidents are a response to safety complaints made to the Federal Government, the Government is already aware of these safety violations even if employees do not invoke § 210's remedial provisions. Moreover, the suggestion that employees will forgo their § 210 options and rely solely on state remedies is simply too speculative a basis on which to rest a preemption finding. 496 U. S. 87-90.

871 F.2d 22 (CA 1989), reversed and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 496 U. S. 74

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