A miner says his former employer fired him for expressing safety concerns. Now, the company is suing the miner, saying he filed a false claim against them.
As reported by the Huffington Post, miner Reuben Shemwell had refused to work in confined spaces where he’d been overcome by fumes. He also refused to work on machinery that hadn’t been de-energized.
Armstrong Coal, Shemwell’s employer in Kentucky, fired him, saying he had been warned three times about making excessive cell phones calls. Shemwell claimed his firing was in retaliation for raising his confined space and energized equipment concerns.
Shemwell filed a case against Armstrong with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Officials from the agency tried to inspect the site where he’d been working. Instead of submitting to an inspection, Armstrong closed the site and laid off ten workers.
Initially, a judge ruled Shemwell’s complaint clearly wasn’t frivolous, so under the law, he had to be reinstated to his job.
Later, MSHA decided not to pursue the case.
After that, Armstrong sued Shemwell, saying his claim against the company amounted to “wrongful use of civil proceedings” — in other words, a frivolous lawsuit. Armstrong says Shemwell cost it “unnecessary and substantial costs” through litigation and that he wanted to harm the company because he was fired.
Now MSHA is back on the case. It has filed a complaint against Armstrong alleging the company’s filing of the lawsuit against Shemwell was an act of “retaliation and/or discrimination” and it was “an attempt to discourage miners from filing discrimination complaints.”
Shemwell’s attorney, Tony Oppegard, told Huffington Post that Armstrong filed the lawsuit to send a message to mine employees who speak up about safety problems. He calls Armstrong’s filing a SLAPP suit — a strategic lawsuit against public participation. Oppegard says it’s to discourage other miners from filing complaints with MSHA for fear of legal costs.
Oppegard says in more than 30 years of representing miners in safety discrimination cases he’s never seen a lawsuit by a company like this one. He says if Armstrong is successful, it will have a chilling effect on workers with safety concerns in the mining industry. They’ll be more reluctant to pursue their cases with MSHA.