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Airport Safety Whistleblower Wins Settlement

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By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on October 15, 2018 12:30 PM

Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is out nearly three-quarters of a million dollars for failing to listen to one of its manager's safety complaints, and then retaliating against him when slapped with a Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) safety violation.

The airport was hit with with a $735,000 penalty by the FAA for failing to comply with the recommendations of Manager of Field Maintenance, Abdul Malik-Ali, to use more staffers for snow removal. The Airport should have licked its wounds and moved on. But when Airport Director Ricky Smith retaliated against Ali for tipping off the FAA regarding the snow removal safety concerns, the Airport's liability in the matter ultimately tripled.

Reprimanded for Going Above the Radar

Back in 2015, Ali was concerned with the inadequate staffing for snow removal. He informed his manager, Director Ricky Smith, to no avail. Ali later met with an FAA representative, and relayed his concerns. After an inspection in which the FAA agreed with Ali, stating "this is unbelievable," the FAA slapped the airport with a $735,000 civil penalty for violating safety laws, though that penalty was later negotiated down to $200,000.

Upon hearing of this, Smith demoted Ali, moved Ali's office into a repurposed closet, and strapped Ali with makeshift work, such as monitoring trash levels in dumpsters. Ali also received a dock in salary based on the demotion.

First an OSHA Whistleblower Suit

Ali fired back with a whistleblower complaint through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for the retaliation taken by Smith for trying to protect the safety of the greater public. In May of 2017, Ali prevailed, and was awarded about $96,000 in pain and suffering, and attorney's fee; the award also ordered Ali's immediate reinstatement to his manager position, and that airport post notices and email employees to report that it was found at fault for retaliation. But Ali wasn't done with his employer yet.

Followed by a Civil Rights Suit

Ali then filed a First and Fourteenth Amendment rights claim in federal court, attaching other similar state claims, against the City of Cleveland for violating his rights to speak freely with the FAA about his concerns. After being hit with the OSHA violation, the City of Cleveland decided it should settle, and agreed to pay Ali an additional $425,000, plus increased wage compensation of $3,210 per year, in addition to the OSHA settlement of $96,000. Also, the settlement requires the City of Cleveland to:

  • Abide by all of OSHA's previously administered remedies;
  • Clear Ali's personnel file of all disciplinary letters and reports in connection with his whistleblowing;
  • Allow Ali's participation in any federal or state proceeding or investigation regarding Ricky Smith's conduct while at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

Since the incident, the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport has changed its ways, and received "no letters of correction" in a recent FAA inspection, which is reportedly the highest rating given. Smith resigned from his post at the Cleveland airport, and is now a director at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Flyers beware!

It's never easy to learn of state and federal law violations that your business may be making. Try not to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Investigate the internal complaints before they reach external agencies. And never retaliate against the whistleblower, no matter how tempting it may be, as it may make a bad problem even worse.

If you have any questions about whistleblowing laws, and what sort of actions are considered OSHA violations, contact a local employment lawyer, who can walk you through what is legal, what is not, and what risks just aren't worth taking.

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