Discrimination suit a violation of Mine Act: judge

THE US Mine Safety and Health Administration has confirmed that a discrimination suit brought by Armstrong Coal against one of its terminated miners violated the anti-discrimination provisions of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.
Discrimination suit a violation of Mine Act: judge Discrimination suit a violation of Mine Act: judge Discrimination suit a violation of Mine Act: judge Discrimination suit a violation of Mine Act: judge Discrimination suit a violation of Mine Act: judge


Staff Reporter

Administrative Law judge Jerold Feldman of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission ordered Madisonville, Kentucky based producer Armstrong Coal and subsidiary Armstrong Fabricators to withdraw a civil tort suit for wrongful use of civil proceedings.

The lawsuit had initially been filed in the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s Muhlenberg Circuit Court against miner Reuben Shemwell.

Feldman decided Armstrong’s state court suit “unlawfully interfered” with the former miner’s rights under the Mine Act, that the suit was preempted by the Mine Act, and that it was baseless and retaliatory.

The judgment brings to close a case that was almost two years old. Armstrong originally discharged Shemwell in September 2011, after which Shemwell filed a complaint with MSHA claiming retaliation for his safety activities while working at an Armstrong operation.

The US Secretary of Labor’s attorneys filed an application for temporary reinstatement, and following a hearing to decide the scope of the complaint he was placed back into his position.

MSHA made a decision not to pursue Shemwell’s discrimination case on the merits, and subsequently Armstrong filed a civil tort suit against him in state court to seek compensatory and punitive damages on the assertion that the worker had intentionally initiated a false discrimination action only to impose litigation costs on Armstrong.

The company maintained that “the First Amendment right to file … a petition in court trumps all other interests, statutes or rights”

Labor Secretary legal representatives called the action potentially “financially devastating” to a miner, and said it would “dissuade a reasonable miner from making or supporting a charge of discrimination”, noting that state civil action was not protected under the First Amendment right to petition because it was federally preempted by the Mine Act.

Even if it were not in conflict with the Mine Act, they argued, the civil suit was not worthy of First Amendment protection because it was baseless and retaliatory.

“To allow a state court to grant monetary damages against a miner for filing a safety-related complaint, a remedy that was authorized by Congress in the Mine Act, would undermine the goal the Act seeks to accomplish – miner participation in safety matters,” Feldman said.

“Miners must be free to file safety-related complaints regardless of whether they are ultimately determined to be meritorious.”

MSHA assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health Joe Main said the agency was happy with the decision.

“We are pleased the judge recognized, in the Armstrong Coal decision, that the judicial process cannot be used to violate the rights of a miner under the Mine Act,” he said.

According to Section 105(c) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, a miner cannot be discharged, discriminated against or interfered with in the exercise of statutory rights because he or she has engaged in a protected activity such as filing a complaint alleging a health or safety violation, or refusing to work under unsafe or unhealthy conditions.

The act provides that a miner who has a non-frivolous claim of discrimination may be temporarily reinstated to his job pending final order on the complaint.

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