Lest you think Idaho is off of OSHA’s radar screen, think again. An Idaho paper company was recently sued for allegedly retaliating against an employee who reported health concerns in the workplace. In late October, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a whistleblower complaint against Clearwater Paper Corporation (Clearwater) in federal court in Idaho seeking more than $300,000 in damages. The facts alleged in the complaint are short and succinct:
- Anthony Tenny worked for Clearwater Paper Corporation in its Wood Products Division at the Lewiston facility from February 2004 until his termination in June 2010.
- Throughout his employment, Clearwater promoted Tenny several times and gave him high performance ratings.
- Tenny told Clearwater Paper on numerous occasions that employees were being exposed to excessive levels of red cedar dust at the mill.
- In April and early May 2010, Tenny spoke with his immediate supervisor to express concern that the amount of red cedar dust in the air at the mill presented health hazards to the mill employees.
- Tenny then contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to report his concerns.
- On May 28, 2010, OSHA inspected the mill.
- On June 21, 2010, Clearwater Paper suspended Tenny without pay and required that he take a drug test.
- On June 25, 2010, Clearwater fired Tenny.
In its complaint, OSHA is seeking that Tenny be reinstated to his position and that Clearwater be found liable for an excess of $300,000 for back pay, compensatory damages, emotional distress damages and punitive damages.
Of course, the complaint is only one side of the story and Clearwater is entitled to enter an appearance and respond to the DOL’s allegations. Clearwater will likely do just that over the coming weeks.
Retaliation Claims Are Often AvoidableIn many situations, retaliation lawsuits, whether following a whistleblower’s report, harassment complaint or other protected activity, can be avoided. Employers should exercise caution when deciding whether to take adverse action against an employee who has complained of potentially unlawful acts in the workplace. It doesn’t mean that an employer can never discipline or discharge a complaining employee; it simply means that the true reasons behind the adverse employment action must be examined closely in light of company policies and past practices. Companies should train their supervisors and managers not to make statements or take actions against whistleblowers that might be seen as intimidating, threatening or outright retaliatory. Investigate and resolve the underlying complaint but do not add to your woes by retaliating against the complaining employee.
Disclaimer: This article is designed to provide general information on pertinent legal topics. The statements made are provided for educational purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice and are not intended to create an attorney-client relationship between you and Holland & Hart LLP. If you have specific questions as to the application of the law to your activities, you should seek the advice of your legal counsel.