June 21, 2013
In a ruling that could have wide implications for coal miners, a federal judge has rebuked a coal company for trying to sue a Kentucky miner who filed a safety discrimination complaint against management. The decision has called the company’s lawsuit a form of retaliation and ordered that it be withdrawn.
As HuffPost reported in January, Armstrong Coal took miner Reuben Shemwell to civil court after Shemwell said he was wrongfully dismissed from his job for raising safety concerns in his mine. It appeared to be the first time that a coal company sued an employee for filing a safety discrimination complaint, and Shemwell’s lawyers warned that the threat of legal fees would have a chilling effect on whistleblowers throughout the mining industry.
In their suit filed in Kentucky state court in August, Armstrong lawyers claimed that Shemwell’s filing of a discrimination complaint with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) amounted to “wrongful use of civil proceedings” — essentially, a frivolous lawsuit — after government officials declined to pursue Shemwell’s discrimination claim against the company. The Labor Department then turned around and filed a fresh discrimination complaint against Armstrong, arguing that the civil lawsuit in itself was a form of retaliation against the miner.