Safety and OSHA News

Company can’t sue former employee for allegedly filing false safety claim

A federal judge says Armstrong Coal violated worker whistleblower protections and interfered with a former worker’s right to file a safety complaint.

In a precedent-setting case, an administrative law judge (ALJ) ordered Armstrong to withdraw a lawsuit against its former employee, Reuben Shemwell. Armstrong’s suit may have been the first by a coal company against an employee for filing a safety discrimination complaint, according to Shemwell’s attorney.

Shemwell worked as a welder at an Armstrong mine in Kentucky. The coal company says it fired him for “excessive cell phone use.” Shemwell says he was really fired for reporting potential safety problems to management including ones involving confined spaces and respirators.

Shemwell took his case to federal authorities with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), but the agency ultimately decided not to pursue it. MSHA tried to inspect the Armstrong facility, but the coal company closed the mine down and laid off 10 miners.

After MSHA decided not to investigate, Armstrong filed its lawsuit against Shemwell. The coal company said the miner’s suit amounted to a false claim or, in other words, a frivolous lawsuit.

But now the mining company has been ordered to drop its lawsuit against its former employee. In his order to Armstrong, the ALJ wrote:

“It is paramount that miners must be insulated from any chilling effect that would inhibit their willingness to report safety related concerns to mine management.”

There’s no immediate comment on what Armstrong intends to do now. Shemwell says he will proceed with his original complaint against Armstrong through his lawyer since the coal company’s lawsuit against him has been thrown out.

Shemwell’s lawyer, Tony Oppegard, told the Huffington Post that the ruling sets the precedent that miners shouldn’t have to worry if they’ll be sued for speaking up about potential safety hazards at work.

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