US Labor Department's OSHA wins jurisdictional dispute against
Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto regarding whistleblower case
Judge agreed with OSHA that charter school is covered under OSH Act
PALMETTO, Fla. – The U.S. Department of Labor has won a jurisdictional challenge in U.S. district court against Renaissance Arts and Education Inc., doing business as Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto. The dispute pertains to a determination by the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration that the charter school intentionally and unlawfully terminated a worker's employment for voicing and reporting concerns regarding work-related safety hazards ¿ activities that are protected by the whistleblower protection provisions of Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
On June 1, Judge Steven D. Merryday denied Manatee's motion to dismiss. The judge's decision stems from an ongoing dispute between the Department of Labor and Manatee regarding the school's classification as an "employer." Manatee contends that the school is a "political subdivision" of the state of Florida, does not engage in business affecting commerce and therefore is not an "employer" under the OSH Act. However, OSHA argues that the school, although funded by the state, is not a political subdivision, as none of its governing members are appointed by a public entity and it operates ¿ both under state law and in practice ¿ as a "private employer." In his order on the defendant's motion, Merryday agreed with OSHA's position, stating, "The secretary's amended complaint sufficiently alleges that the School constitutes an ¿employer' under the statute."
"The Department of Labor is committed to ensuring that the Occupational Safety and Health Act will apply to all employers as defined by law," said Cindy A. Coe, OSHA's regional administrator in Atlanta. "We will not allow covered employers to be relieved of their responsibilities under the OSH Act and will pursue any employer for violating these responsibilities."
In this case, the employee submitted a letter to his direct supervisor on June 20, 2009, addressing perceived safety hazards in the school's two theaters, specifically, improperly placed extension cords and a lack of sprinkler systems. The school did not respond to the letter. On July 14, the employee filed a complaint with OSHA reporting the same concerns. After OSHA communicated with the school, on July 30, the employee disputed the school's response to the safety complaint, and the employee was notified that his position was being terminated. On Aug. 4, OSHA performed a safety inspection and cited the school for the electrical hazards. The school accepted the citations and entered into a settlement agreement with OSHA.
The Labor Department's lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, asks for an order that includes a permanent injunction against the school to prevent future violations of the OSH Act. It also seeks the reinstatement of the former employee with full benefits; payment of back wages, punitive damages and compensatory damages; removal of references to the matters at issue in this case from the employee's personnel file; and any other appropriate relief. The Labor Department's Regional Office of the Solicitor in Atlanta is representing OSHA in court.
OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of Section 11(c) of the OSH Act and 20 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various securities, trucking, airline, nuclear, pipeline, environmental, rail, maritime, health care, consumer product and food safety laws.
Under the various whistleblower provisions enacted by Congress, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise various protected concerns or provide protected information to the employer or to the government. Employees who believe they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the secretary of labor for an investigation by OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program. Detailed information on employee whistleblower rights, including fact sheets, is available at http://www.whistleblowers.gov.
To ask questions, obtain compliance assistance, file a complaint, or report workplace hospitalizations, fatalities or situations posing imminent danger to workers, the public should call OSHA's toll-free hotline at 800-321-OSHA (6742) or the agency's Jacksonville Area Office at 904-232-2895.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA's role is to ensure these conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit http://www.osha.gov.
Editor's note: The U.S. Department of Labor does not release names of employees involved in whistleblower complaints.
Solis v. Renaissance Arts and Education Inc.
Civil Action File Number 8:12-cv-00514-SDM-MAP
U.S. Department of Labor news materials are accessible at http://www.dol.gov. . The information above is available in large print, Braille or CD from the COAST office upon request by calling 202-693-7828 or TTY 202-693-7755