A former employee of Selma, Ala.-based auto supplier Renosol Seating has been denied federal whistleblower protections by a Montgomery County circuit court judge.
Kim King lost her job at the Lear-owned Renosol Corporation in March after she attempted to deliver a letter to Hyundai executives expressing her concerns about toxic chemical exposures in the plant and low wages. Renosol makes foam car seats for the Korean automaker.
Ms. King and other Renosol employees claim that chemicals used to make the foam seats in the plant have adversely affected their health. Studies have shown that toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, can lead to the development of asthma and other respiratory distress in workers exposed to it over the long term.
Not only did Renosol fire Ms. King but it filed a defamation lawsuit against her. The U.S. Department of Justice got involved at that point, filing a case against Lear in federal court alleging it unlawfully retaliated against a whistleblower.
In May, federal judge Callie Granade ruled that Ms. King’s claims were reasonable and issued a temporary injunction that barred Lear from “suing current or former employees because of those individuals’ complaints about health and safety.” The injunction also prohibited Lear from suspending, firing, suing, threatening, or in any other way retaliating against other employees.
On Sept. 22, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge William Shashy ruled that Ms. King’s attempts to deliver her written concerns to Hyundai officials was not protected activity under federal whistleblower statutes.
“There was no determination made in the federal court case on whether King engaged in protected activity when she went to Hyundai,” Judge Shashy wrote. “Lear’s claim of business interference by King is centered on her actions as it concerns Hyundai.”
The ruling allows Lear’s lawsuit against Ms. King to move forward and clears the way for the company’s attorneys to collect depositions, medical records, and other documents from the defendant.
Lear also lashed out against United Auto Workers, asserting the union interfered in the whistleblower retaliation case and “directed the agency’s investigation itself at each level.”
The case is drawing national attention for its potential impact on future whistleblower retaliation complaints and what whistleblower protection statutes define as protected activity.