A federal jury found that a Massachusetts employer and his company retaliated against an employee who reported an on-the-job injury, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced on June 22. The jury awarded $650,000 in damages—$600,000 in punitive damages and $50,000 in compensatory damages—in the case.
The DOL filed a lawsuit in February 2019 against Tara Construction Inc. and its CEO, Pedro Pirez, following an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) whistleblower investigation.
The Labor Department alleged that the defendants were responsible for a law enforcement investigation and the employee’s detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the employee reported a serious injury that led OSHA to open a rapid response investigation.
According to the Labor Department, the employee sustained a serious injury when he fell from a ladder on March 29, 2017. The employee reported his injury to the defendants. OSHA made an inquiry with the employer after finding out about the employee’s fall.
In its suit, the DOL alleged that Pirez arranged for the employee to meet him at the Tara Construction office, and the employee was arrested immediately after leaving the building. The DOL said Pirez told an officer present at the arrest when the employee would be at Tara Construction’s office. An OSHA whistleblower investigation found text messages and approximately 14 telephone calls between Pirez and law enforcement in the days surrounding the arrest.
“The Department of Labor will not tolerate retaliation against employees who complain of workplace abuses, including when an employer seeks to use an employee’s perceived immigration status as a way to intimidate workers,” Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda said in a statement.
“Successful enforcement of worker protection laws depends on workers being empowered and feeling safe enough to speak out for themselves and their fellow workers,” Nanda continued. “If workers are brave enough to come forward, we will use all legal tools we have to protect them.”
Tara Construction is responsible for $200,000 in punitive damages, and Pirez is responsible for $400,000. The Labor Department seeks punitive damages in federal lawsuits to “ensure employers understand that it is not only unlawful, but also costly, to retaliate,” Boston Regional Solicitor of Labor Maia Fisher said in a statement.
“The Occupational Safety and Health Act protects the rights of all workers, and–as we did here–we will pursue significant punitive damages when necessary to punish and deter those who violate workers’ rights,” Fisher added.
OSHA’s whistleblower enforcement authority originated in Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. The agency now is responsible for whistleblower protections in 25 federal statutes, including the OSH Act, as well as airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, motor vehicle safety, healthcare reform, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime, and securities laws.
“This verdict sends a strong message to employers that there will be severe consequences when they violate the law and employee rights,” Galen Blanton, OSHA’s Boston regional administrator, said.