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St. Paul Park Refining Co., LLC v. National Labor Relations Board

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 8, 2019

St. Paul Park Refining Co., LLC, doing business as Western Refining Petitioner
v.
National Labor Relations Board Respondent St. Paul Park Refining Co., LLC, doing business as Western Refining Respondent
v.
National Labor Relations Board Petitioner

          Submitted: March 13, 2019

         National Labor Relations Board

          Before SHEPHERD, ARNOLD, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.

          SHEPHERD, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         St. Paul Park Refining Company (SPPRC) petitions for review and the National Labor Relations Board applies for enforcement of the Board's order determining SPPRC unlawfully suspended an employee for engaging in protected concerted activity in violation of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. Having jurisdiction pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 160(e) and (f), we deny SPPRC's petition and enforce the order.

         I.

         SPPRC operates an oil refinery with 450 employees in St. Paul Park, Minnesota. The refinery maintains constant operations, processing crude oil into products like gasoline. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local No. 120 (the Union) represents some of the refinery employees, including vacancy relief operator Richard Topor, who had served as a Union steward for several years. Topor's supervisors at the refinery were Gary Regenscheid and Dale Caswell.

         Due to the hazards of refinery work, both SPPRC's collective-bargaining agreement and its employee handbook emphasize that employees must notify supervisors if they believe work conditions are unsafe and assist in remedying the dangerous conditions. SPPRC employees follow written procedures to perform various tasks, and any change in a procedure must be documented using a step-change form. SPPRC also maintains a "safety stop" policy giving all employees the authority to stop a job due to safety concerns and discuss any appropriate mitigation measures with supervisors. SPPRC's employment documents state that workers may raise safety concerns without fear of retaliation and specifically mention new or nonstandard procedures as situations that might warrant a safety stop.

         On November 4, 2016, Caswell assigned Michael Rennert, one of Topor's coworkers, the task of restarting a machine known as the Penex. Doing so required injecting hydrochloric acid from pressurized cylinders into the Penex to clear out water and rust. Only a few weeks prior, SPPRC implemented a new technique for injecting the acid that involved heating the cylinders with steam. However, no one had updated the written procedure to reflect the new method. Never having restarted the Penex before, Rennert asked Topor about the safety of the procedure. Topor questioned the safety of the new steam-heating method.

         Rennert and Topor discussed their concerns with Eric Rowe, a unit-process engineer, and requested a written procedure. Rowe prepared a step-change form for the new Penex cleaning procedure, which supervisors, including operations superintendent Briana Jung, signed. The form included an instruction stating that other hydrochloric acid cylinders should not be in the same area as the one that will be heated.

         In the afternoon, Regenscheid and Jung reassigned the task to Topor, giving him the step-change form. Topor noted that, contrary to the form's instructions, other cylinders were near the cylinder to be heated. Regenscheid instructed Topor to mitigate the hazard by placing insulation blankets over the cylinders that were not in use, but Topor insisted the procedure called for removing the additional cylinders from the area, fearing Regenscheid's suggestion was unsafe and risked explosion. Topor wanted to initiate a safety stop, but Regenscheid again said to use insulation. In response, Topor repeated his safety stop request, asking that the safety department review Regenscheid's suggestion. Topor began filling out a safety-stop form.

         Telling Topor to fill the form out later, Regenscheid and Jung met with him at the Penex, where Topor again repeated his safety concerns. Topor explained that if the restart process had changed to allow insulation blankets, the step-change form needed to be updated accordingly. He added that he felt he was being pressured to perform the task despite his safety concerns. Topor and Regenscheid began speaking in loud voices. Eventually, Regenscheid and Jung sent Topor home. As Topor was leaving, Regenscheid asked him to return the step-change form, but Topor did not hear him and did not comply. Eventually, Regenscheid gave Topor a ride to a different building to change out of his work clothes and leave; they did not speak.

         SPPRC's human resource employees told Jung and Regenscheid to document the events of the day for an investigation. Regenscheid wrote that Topor had refused to do assigned work and behaved insubordinately. Jung wrote that Topor had refused to discuss mitigation, which she also viewed as insubordination. She named several witnesses to the encounter, including Rennert. Three days later, Jung modified her statement, adding that Topor was loud and had pointed his finger at Regenscheid. During its investigation, SPPRC interviewed only some of the witnesses Jung had named, relying almost entirely on supervisors' accounts while declining to interview fellow unit employees like Rennert. During his interview, Topor denied raising his voice or pointing his finger at Regenscheid.

         Eventually, SPPRC issued Topor a 10-day unpaid suspension and a final written warning, citing inappropriate behavior and insubordination. A few ...


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