On November 16, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined that claims arising from the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (“ICCTA”) can be litigated in the federal courts or at the Surface Transportation Board (“STB”) despite seemingly contradictory language in ICCTA that grants the STB exclusive jurisdiction.1 The Four Circuit becomes (well …) the fourth circuit court to so rule, after the First, Fifth and Sixth circuits.
This case involves the Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad Co. (“B&A”) which operates freight service over 80 miles of rail line including numerous bridges. In 2011, the Federal Railroad Administration (“FRA”) ordered the B&A to repair many of its bridges. Following the FRA order, the B&A took possession of Norfolk Southern Railway Company (“NS”) railcars. The B&A did not notify NS of its bridge problems. The B&A then embargoed its freight service over its track. The NS cars were thus trapped on the B&A line.
In 2013, the NS brought suit against B&A to recover damages for the NS railcars that were trapped on B&A's line for almost two years. A district court held for NS.
On appeal, B&A argues that because the NS claims are grounded in ICCTA, jurisdiction is proper at the STB and not in the courts. In its argument, the B&A cites language in ICCTA that the STB has “exclusive” jurisdiction over transportation by rail carriers including car service and interchange.2
The Fourth Circuit disagreed. In its decision rejecting B&A’s argument, the court cites other provisions of ICCTA which allow a person to seek relief in federal court.3 The court acknowledges that the multiple ICCTA provisions create ambiguity as to whether federal courts retain jurisdiction over claims like those brought by NS against B&A.
Despite this ambiguity, the court held that B&A sought a narrow reading of the statute and that it would adopt a broader interpretation to encompass the right of individuals to file suit in federal district courts. The court said, “Congress intended only to preempt state law and remedies, not to give the STB exclusive jurisdiction over ICCTA claims.”4 Further the court said that, in reaching this conclusion, the Fourth Circuit joins the First, Fifth, and Sixth Circuits in determining that the federal courts retain original jurisdiction concurrent with the STB in hearing disputes governed by ICCTA