Statistics, OSHA Lawsuit Against AT&T Operator & Other DOL Action Highlights Rising Retaliation Exposures

February 10, 2014

A new Department of Labor (DOL) lawsuit filed in Cleveland against The Ohio Bell Telephone Company and other DOL enforcement news released today remind U.S. businesses again of the growing need to recognize and manage exposure to retaliation claims when dealing with workers who have reported injuries or other Occupational Health & Safety Act of 1974 (OSHA Laws), discrimination, wage and hour or other federal laws that include anti-retaliation or whistleblower protections.

AT&T Operator Sued Under OSHA

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, the In the Matter of: Perez v. The Ohio Bell Telephone Company, Civil Action No. 1:14-cv-269 lawsuit charges The Ohio Bell Telephone Company, which operates as AT&T, violated the whistleblower provisions of the OSHA Laws. The complaint alleges that in 13 separate incidents, 13 employees of AT&T were disciplined and given one- to three-day unpaid suspensions for reporting injuries that occurred on the job.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of 22 statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, motor vehicle safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime and securities laws.  These whistleblower provisions generally prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who raise concerns or provide information to their employer or the government under any of these laws.

The lawsuit illustrates the difficulty that U.S. employers increasingly face when dealing with workers who have filed complaints or participated in other protected activity under the OSHA Laws or other laws with whistleblower or anti-retaliation provisions.  OSHA claims that the employer wrongfully retaliated against 13 Ohio employees who received unpaid suspensions after reporting work place injuries from 2011 to 2013.  However, the company claims that the suspensions were appropriate disciple against the impacted employees for his or her violation of a workplace safety standard.

Assuming that the lawsuit proceeds without settlement, the company can expect to face expensive and lengthy litigation to determine whose perspective wins.  Even if the company succeeds in winning the lawsuit, the expenses and other costs of the litigation will render any victory a financial loss.

Wage & Hour Retaliation

Along with the AT&T Operator OSHA action, DOL also is acting to enforce retaliation claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and other laws enforced by its Wage and Hour Division as well as its other agencies.  The Wage and Hour Division makes investigation and enforcement against employers that retaliate against workers for exercising rights protected under the FLSA or other wage and hour laws a priority.    One example of this commitment to this priority is the brief the Labor Department filed in Lockheed Martin Corp. v. Administrative Review Board, where a key issue is whether substantial evidence supports the determination of the Administrative Law Judge, as as affirmed by the Administrative Review Board, that protected activity was a contributing factor in Lockheed’s constructive discharge of an employee.

Retaliation Exposure Wide-Reaching and Growing

While OSHA and the Wage and Hour Division zealously enforce the anti-retaliation provisions of the laws subject to their jurisdiction, these laws and agencies are only the tip of the iceberg.  Most federal and many state labor and employment as well as a broad range of other laws include anti-relation provisions that protect workers who report potential misconduct, participate in investigaitons or engagement in other protected activity.

U.S. Government statistics show that U.S. business risk from retaliation or other whistleblower claims is significant and rising.  Official statistics reported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) here show a steady rise in retaliation based charges.

Businesses or their leaders found guilty of retaliation often face significant liability.  When anti-retaliation laws are enforced by the Department of Labor or other agencies, businesses generally can expect to incur both restitution and correction costs as well as administrative or civil penalties.  Increasingly, employees or others reporting the claims to the agencies may receive a portion of the recovered amounts under qui tam or other similar statutes.

Damages awarded to private plaintiffs who win retaliation lawsuits also tend to be quite costly.  They typically include actual damages, attorneys’ fees and other costs of enforcement as well as punitive damages. In addition to the exposures that businesses face when found guilty of illegal retaliation, many of these statutes also may impose personal liability against management or others who engage in or condone this activity. Defending these claims often proves particularly challenging because of the heavy burdens of proof that a business ormanagement official often faces when an employee or other protected party shows detriment after engaging in protected actions.

Risk Management Needed

In the face of this growing risks, businesses should recognize and take steps to monitor and manage their exposure to retaliation or other whistleblower claims.  While an imperfect panacea to the rising risks of retaliation claims and liabilities, examples of some of the steps businesses generally will want to use to prevent and mitigate etaliation exposures include:

  • Establish and clearly communicate by word and deed that the Company prohibits retaliation.  The policy should make clear retaliation is against company policy and communicate the steps that employees concerned that they are being retaliated against should take to report suspected retailiation.
  • Train management and other workers on the retaliation policy and hold employees that engage in illegal retailiation or other prohibited conduct through appropriate discipline.
  • Communicate promptly with persons reporting suspected retaliation, acknowledging the receipt of the report and that the company takes the report seriously and will investigate.  At the same time, tell the whistleblower that the company does not tolerate retaliation and what to do if the whistleblower suspects retaliation.
  • Keep complaints confidential to reduce the risk of retaliation.
  • Document the report and the investigation.  When possible, ask the whistleblower and other witnesses provide written statements.
  • Avoid forming, and teach management and others conducting or participating in the investigation to avoid forming any conclusions or making statements or other actions that could indicate that conclusions have been reached before all the facts are completed.
  • Use exit interviews, whistleblower hotlines and other processes to help identify and manage concerns before they turn into litigation or complaints.
  • Ensure that your employee hiring, promotion, compensation, demotion, termination and other practices and policies are well designed, documented and administered.  Document personnel decisions consistently and fairly on an ongoing basis.
  • Be aware of and monitor potential retaliation exposures when conducting ongoing promotion, discharge, bonus and compensation and other day-to-day workforce actions.  When an individual who has engaged in protected activity is terminated, denied a promotion or wage or experiences an event that the worker could perceive as adverse, take steps to review the action before it is finalized to identify and correct potential retaliation.
  • Consider getting employment practices liability coverage or other protection to provide a fund to defend claims.
  • Don’t overlook exposures arising from staffing or leasing arrangements, customer or vendor relationships or other third party relationships.
  • Seek competent legal advice and assistance with using attorney-client privilege and other rules of evidence, designing policies and practices, investigating and responding to complaints or enforcement actions and other activities.

When planning for and administering these and other compliance and risk management processes and procedures, keep in mind that the intent to retaliate generally is not required to create liability.   Likewise, a business’ policy prohibiting retaliation is not an adequate shield against liability in most cases if in fact retaliation in violation of the policy occurs.  Nevertheless, the efforts to prevent and mitigate retaliation are worthwhile.  Not only can they prevent claims by deterring improper conduct or providing opportunities for correction and mitigation they also can help mitigate judgments and other liability in most instances.

For Assistance or More Information

If you have questions or need help with these or employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer is recognized, internationally, nationally and locally for her more than 25 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on cutting edge health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters.

A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experienced with these and other employment, employee benefit and compensation matters, Ms. Stamer continuously advises and assists employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsoring employers, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators, service providers, insurers and others to monitor and respond to evolving legal and operational requirements and to design, administer, document and defend medical and other welfare benefit, qualified and non-qualified deferred compensation and retirement, severance and other employee benefit, compensation, and human resources, management and other programs and practices tailored to the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals. A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security pension privatization law, Ms. Stamer also works extensively with management, service provider and other clients to monitor legislative and regulatory developments and to deal with Congressional and state legislators, regulators, and enforcement officials about regulatory, investigatory or enforcement concerns.

Recognized in Who’s Who In American Professionals and both an American Bar Association (ABA) and a State Bar of Texas Fellow, Ms. Stamer serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Employee Benefits News,, Insurance Thought Leadership, Solutions Law Press, Inc. and other publications, and active in a multitude of other employee benefits, human resources and other professional and civic organizations. She also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, Modern and many other national and local publications. Her widely respected publications and programs include more than 25 years of publications on health plan contracting, design, administration and risk management including a “Managed Care Contracting Guide” published by the American Health Lawyers Association and numerous other works on vendor contracting.  You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, review some of her other training, speaking, publications and other resources, and register to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer here.

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