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Kentucky miner faces a new low for employer retaliation

It was bad enough that Kentucky miner Reuben Shemwell was so concerned about safety at his worksite that he filed a safety discrimination complaint with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). But he quickly saw things go from bad to worse when his employer, an affiliate of Armstrong Coal, reached a new low in retaliation – the company sued the employee to intimidate him and future employees for reporting hazards.

Soon after Shemwell filed the complaint, Armstrong fired him for “excessive cell phone use” on the job – an allegation that he denies. Shemwell says the allegation was merely a cover for the company’s retaliating against his safety complaint.

As The Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson reported, “Shemwell's discrimination complaint soon cleared the first legal hurdle for mine safety discrimination cases, when a judge ruled the complaint was clearly not frivolous, given how soon after his safety complaints he was fired for excessive cell use. The judge ordered the mine to temporarily reinstate Shemwell at his job as the case moved forward.”

But then, Armstrong filed suit against Shemwell in Kentucky state court, claiming that the miner had filed a "false discrimination claim" against them, and that his claim amounted to "wrongful use of civil proceedings" -- akin to a frivolous lawsuit.

Shemwell’s attorney, Tony Oppegard, maintains that Armstrong filed the suit expressly to send a message to Shemwell and other mine employees who speak up about safety problems, Jamieson wrote. The filing, he argued, was what's become known as a "strategic lawsuit against public participation," or SLAPP suit, which is meant to preemptively intimidate detractors through with the threat of legal costs.

MSHA filed a complaint against Armstrong earlier this month alleging that Armstrong's filing of the lawsuit against Shemwell was an act of "retaliation and/or discrimination," and that it was "an attempt to discourage miners from filing discrimination complaints."

"People will be afraid to file complaints," Oppegard told Jamieson. "If Armstrong Coal is successful, then other mining companies, whether it's coal or copper or gold or whatever, they'll use the same tactic. ... The anti-discrimination provision of mine [safety law] will be essentially worthless."

Find out about your rights at work. Learn more about National COSH’s Whistleblower campaign, and help us push for stronger Whistleblower protections and an end to “Blame the Worker” safety programs.