A federal judge in Idaho has ordered a paper manufacturer to pay a former employee $235,000 in back pay and damages after ruling that the company violated federal whistleblower protections when it unlawfully fired the employee for reporting unsafe working conditions.
Clearwater Paper Corp. of Spokane, Wash., fired Anthony Tenny, an employee of its Lewiston, Idaho, sawmill, in 2010, less than a month after Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials inspected the mill in response to a complaint Mr. Tenny filed stating concerns about high levels of wood dust in the mill.
Inadequate or improper ventilation can allow unsafe levels of highly combustible airborne dust to accumulate. A spark or flame introduced to an overly dusty environment can case the air to explode, seriously injuring or killing workers.
Mr. Tenny then filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA against Clearwater Paper Corp. The U.S. Department of Labor investigated the complaint and sued the company on his behalf.
Clearwater Paper refuted the allegations, arguing it fired Mr. Tenny for insubordination – a claim that Judge B. Lynn Winmill called “preposterous.”
“Clearwater fired Tenny to chill the reporting of safety violations,” Judge Winmill wrote. “The court finds that all of the reasons advanced by Clearwater for firing Tenny are a fabrication intended to hide the real reason for Tenny’s termination,” Winmill wrote in his decision. “The court further finds that the real reason Tenny was fired was because he filed an OSHA complaint.”
Judge Winmill also issued an injunction barring Clearwater Paper from retaliating against its employees who report health and safety concerns to OSHA.
The judge awarded Mr. Tenny $108,000 in economic damages, including $76,000 in back pay he would have made before Clearwater Paper sold the Lewiston mill to Idaho Forest Group, which terminated all of its waged union employees. The judge also awarded Mr. Tenny $50,000 for emotional distress and $77,000 in punitive damages, meant to discourage Clearwater from firing other employees who report safety concerns.
Clearwater Paper officials told the press they disagreed with the judge’s decision and are assessing whether an appeal is feasible.
Source: Associated Press