Watch Al Franken shut down Gorsuch’s cruel decision in the ‘Frozen Trucker’ case

Laurel Raymond

Laurel Raymond General Reporter, Think Progress

Senator Al Franken (D-MN), as he said himself during Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, used to have “a career in identifying absurdity” as a humorist and one of SNL’s original writers.

Ironically, his early career has carried over rather too well to policy making, as he demonstrated while grilling Gorsuch about his ruling in the so-called “Frozen Trucker case.”

The case at hand is that of Alphonse Maddin, a truck driver for TransAm. The brakes on Maddin’s trailer locked up on a subzero January night, and he called for help from TransAm’s road service. They told him to wait, and he did — for two hours, despite discovering that the heat in his truck cab was broken. When he was woken by a phone call, he had a numb torso and couldn’t feel his feet.

“If you fall asleep waiting in 14 below zero weather, you can freeze to death. You can die,” Franken explained in his retelling of the case.

Maddin called back TransAm’s road service, who told him to “hang in there.” He waited 30 more minutes. Then, he unhitched his broken trailer and drove off seeking help. About fifteen minutes later, when the repair truck finally arrived, Maddin drove back to meet it.

TransAm fired him for abandoning his trailer, and Maddin filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), citing a statute that prohibits an employer for firing an employee for refusing to “operate a vehicle because . . . the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition.”

Gorsuch, however, concluded that the statute didn’t protect Maddin, because he had operated his vehicle — the cab of his truck. And, in his decision, Gorsuch described Maddin’s situation like so:

“A trucker was stranded on the side of the road, late at night, in cold weather, and his trailer brakes were stuck. He called his company for help and someone there gave him two options. He could drag the trailer carrying the company’s goods to its destination (an illegal and maybe sarcastically offered option). Or he could sit and wait for help to arrive (a legal if unpleasant option). The trucker chose None of the Above, deciding instead to unhook the trailer and drive his truck to a gas station.

In his questioning, Franken criticized Gorsuch for describing the night as merely “cold” and laid out the choice Maddin faced more realistically: “There were two safety issues here. One, the possibility of freezing to death, or driving with that rig in a very, very dangerous way.”

Then Franken asked Gorsuch what he would have done in Maddin’s case. Gorsuch evaded answering, saying he wasn’t in Maddin’s shoes. He also appealed to it as solely legal ruling — which Franken also ripped apart.

“What you’re talking about here is the plain meaning rule. Here is what the rule means. When the plain meaning of a statute is clear on its face, when its meaning is obvious, courts have no business looking beyond the meaning to the statute’s purpose. And that’s what you used, right?,” Franken said.

Gorsuch agreed that that was what was argued.

“But the plain meaning rule has an exception. When using the plain meaning rule would create an absurd result, courts should depart from the plain meaning. It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die possibly by driving an unsafe vehicle. That’s absurd.”

“Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity,” Franken continued. “And I know it when I see it. And it makes me — you know, it makes me question your judgment,” he said.

Later in his testimony, Gorsuch argued that this exception to the plain meaning rule should not apply in Maddin’s case. Nevertheless, there are other reasons why Gorsuch could have sided with Maddin. As the two other appeals court judges hearing this case noted, a federal agency read the word “operate” in this law more broadly than Gorsuch, and Supreme Court precedent calls upon judges to be deferential to agencies in these contexts.

Additionally, as Fordham law professor Jed Handelsman Shugerman notes, the law could also be read to allow Maddin to refuse to operate the truck while the trailer with the frozen brakes was attached.

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This has been reposted from Think Progress.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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