US Labor Department's OSHA wins jury trial regarding whistleblower
violations by Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, Fla.
Jury orders school and its principal to pay whistleblower $175,000
PALMETTO, Fla. – A trial by an eight-member jury in U.S. District Court determined that Renaissance Arts and Education Inc., doing business as Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, and its principal, Dr. Bill Jones, violated the whistleblower protection provisions of Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act when the charter school terminated the worker from employment for engaging in protected activity and voicing and reporting concerns regarding work-related safety hazards. The verdict calls for Manatee School and Jones to pay the worker $55,000 in back wages and $120,000 in punitive damages.
"This is a groundbreaking decision made by the people against the unlawful termination, with malice, of an employee for raising concerns about a potential electrical fire hazard in the large theater," said Teresa A. Harrison, OSHA's acting regional administrator in Atlanta. "The department is pleased with the jury's verdict and hopes that this decision reminds employers that America's workers have the right to raise safety concerns in the workplace without fear of retaliation."
The trial was held in U.S. District Court in Tampa from Sept. 9-12, followed by the judge's decision on Sept. 30. This decision is the latest in a series of wins in this case for the department, which was represented by the Regional Solicitor's office in Atlanta, during the past two years. On June 1, 2012, Judge Steven D. Merryday denied Manatee's motion to dismiss, alleging lack of OSHA jurisdiction. Manatee contended that the school is a "political subdivision" of Florida, does not engage in business affecting commerce and, therefore, is not an "employer" under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. OSHA argued 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. The school operates as a "private employer" under both state law and in practice. 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."
In this case, the worker submitted a letter to his direct supervisor on June 20, 2009, addressing perceived safety hazards in the school's large theater-specifically, the improper placement of extension cords above the sprinkler system that could cause a fire during performances. The school did not respond to the letter. On July 10, 2009, the worker filed a complaint with the Manatee School Board and with OSHA. On July 30, 2009, the worker was notified that his position was being terminated. On Aug. 4, OSHA performed a safety inspection and cited the school for the same electrical hazards mentioned in the worker's complaint. The school accepted the safety inspection citations and entered into a settlement agreement with OSHA.
After the U.S. District Court decision, the charter school once again challenged the department regarding jurisdiction through a motion for summary judgment. On June 11, Magistrate Judge Mark A. Pizzo also denied this motion stating, "I find that the Florida Legislature's characterization of privately run charter schools as public for some purposes does not apply to the school's conduct for OSHA's purposes. To the contrary, based on the undisputed facts, RAE [Manatee] is not a political subdivision of the state and, therefore, not exempt from OSHA's definition of employer."
OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of Section 11(c) of the OSH Act and 21 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.
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 216-893-7828 or TTY 216-893-7755.