Supreme Court nominee ruled against trucker fired who feared death and abandoned trailer
BY TRESA BALDAS
DETROIT FREE PRESS/TNS
DETROIT – Curled up on a bunk in his broken-down truck, waiting three hours for help in sub-zero temperatures, Detroit resident Alphonse Maddin feared death was near.
He had zero feeling in his feet. His torso was going numb. And a burning feeling took over as he started to fade in the 14-below meat truck.
Maddin said he could have died that night but one man didn’t care: U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, a federal judge who ruled against Maddin in a legal case that has landed the Detroit man at the vortex of a debate about whether Gorsuch is a man of the people or big business as he is poised to be appointed to the nation’s highest court.
Sided with employer
Maddin, an avid trumpet player and skilled artist who grew up on the city’s west side and once designed products for the Detroit Three automakers, said Gorsuch is out of touch with working-class people and shouldn’t sit on the high court after ruling against him last year.
Gorsuch sided with the employer who fired Maddin for abandoning his trailer so that he could get to safety.
The trucking company has long argued that it did nothing wrong, disputing claims that the truck’s heater didn’t work and noting that Maddin filed an initial complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but that the agency ruled against him.
More than trucker
Yet out of seven judges who had heard the case over the years, Gorsuch was the only judge to rule in favor of the trucking company.
And how he did it was numbing, said Maddin.
“He referred to me simply as a trucker,” Maddin said. “I’m a human being who has a name … but he followed the company’s argument to get the world to ignore the magnitude of the circumstances, to forget that a man was about to freeze to death.”
And that man, he stressed, is a lot more than a trucker. Maddin, 48, is a proud Detroiter who overcame the hurdle of growing up without a father, who was shot to death when Maddin was 5.
Maddin’s refuge became music, art and drawing. He took up the trumpet in third grade and earned a scholarship to study jazz at Langston University in Oklahoma.
Closure last year
He would go on to earn two college degrees and make a living designing products for the automotive industry until the 2008 recession hit, landing him in the truck driving business.
But Gorsuch couldn’t identify with a man like him, Maddin said. To the judge, he said, he was only a trucker.
“The general sentiment that’s out there right now … that he has a propensity to favor the corporate world versus the people – I think it’s valid,” Maddin said.
It has been eight years since Maddin was fired from his truck driving job, though he didn’t get closure until last year.
After years of administrative hearings and legal feuding, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals last year ruled 2-1 in his favor and ordered the trucking company to rehire Maddin, who instead took back pay.
The judge who ruled against him was Gorsuch, though Maddin wouldn’t read his dissent until months later, when President Donald Trump announced his nominee to the Supreme Court, and before long, the case about the Michigan truck driver who almost froze to death made national news.
Maddin discovered all the buzz while Googling his name.
He was applying for a job one day and decided to search his name on the Internet. Articles popped up linking his name to Trump, Gorsuch and the U.S. Supreme Court. He opened up the stories and discovered all the controversy: Gorsuch was getting drilled for ruling against him.
So he decided to read the full dissent for himself.
“I was like, ‘”Whoa! … Wait a minute, he said all this stuff?” recalled Maddin.
In writing his opinion, Gorsuch stressed that he had to determine whether the employer’s decision to fire Maddin was legal, not “wise or kind.”
Maddin had sued under a law known as the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, which prohibits companies from firing a driver who “refuses to operate” an unsafe truck.
Gorsuch concluded that the law didn’t apply to Maddin because — he reasoned — he didn’t refuse to operate the truck, but rather drove off in it.
“A trucker was stranded on the side of the road, late at night, in cold weather, and his trailer brakes were stuck,” Gorsuch wrote in his dissent.
“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 response, his employer, TransAm, fired him for disobeying orders and abandoning its trailer and goods.”
The dissent has since dogged Gorsuch, who has maintained that he followed the law.
‘An unkind decision’
“My job is to apply the law as written,” Gorsuch said during Senate confirmation hearings, while being grilled by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “The law said he would be protected if he refused to operate.
“By any plain understanding, he operated the vehicle. And if Congress wishes to revise the law — I wrote this: I said it was an unkind decision, it might have been a wrong decision, a bad decision, but my job isn’t to write the law … it’s to apply the law.”