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English v. General Electric Co.

United States Supreme Court
496 U.S. 72 (1990)


Facts

Vera English (plaintiff) worked as a lab technician for General Electric Company (GE) (defendant) at its nuclear-fuels production facility in Wilmington, North Carolina. In February 1984, English complained to company management and to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about safety violations including her coworkers’ failure to clean up spills of radioactive material. Upon receiving what she perceived as inadequate attention to the matter, English purposely left a table contaminated, pointing it out to a supervisor after the table went uncleaned for days. English was fired a few months later. In August, she filed an administrative complaint with the Secretary of Labor, alleging that GE had violated § 210(a) of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 (ERA), which prohibited retaliation against whistleblowers in the nuclear industry. The Secretary dismissed the complaint because English had failed to file it within the required 30-day time period following her termination. In 1987, English filed a diversity action against GE, asserting claims of wrongful termination and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), in a federal district court in North Carolina. She sought compensatory and punitive damages. The court ruled that English had stated a valid IIED claim under North Carolina law but that the claim was preempted by conflict with § 210 of the ERA. The court based its conclusion on three aspects of the ERA: (1) its nonapplication to whistleblowers who deliberately cause a violation of the ERA, (2) its lack of a provision authorizing punitive damages, and (3) its strict 30-day time period for filing a complaint thereunder. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. English petitioned the United States Supreme Court for certiorari. GE argued that both field and conflict preemption applied.

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Holding and Reasoning (Blackmun, J.)

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  • The procedural disposition (e.g. reversed and remanded, affirmed, etc.).

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