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Verdict against company that fired workers for helping OSHA affirmed

Posted On: Aug. 6, 2019 12:19 PM CST

OSHA interview

A federal judge affirmed a jury’s conclusion that a company that makes fire damper protection equipment terminated two of its employees for assisting with an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation.

In Perez v. Lloyd Industries Inc., U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg in Philadelphia dismissed Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania-based Lloyd Industries’ argument that the jury received defective instructions in his ruling Thursday.

The secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor brought claims against Lloyd Industries on behalf of two former employees, Matthew Spillane and Santos Sanna, who claimed they were terminated for engaging in protected activity in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

In July of 2014, an employee at Lloyd sustained a serious injury that resulted in the amputation of several fingers, and he filed a complaint with OSHA. The employee’s friend and colleague, Mr. Spillane, later took pictures of the machine where his co-worker was injured, and the owner admitted that he said he believed that there was a “rat” in the plant feeding information to OSHA.

OSHA inspected the plant on Nov. 13, 2014. Five days later, Mr. Spillane was terminated without explanation. In February of 2015, Mr. Sanna provided testimony to OSHA about the incident, and the company received citations amounting to more than $800,000. Mr. Sanna was terminated that same day. In April 2019, a jury ruled against Lloyd Industries, holding that the company unlawfully terminated the workers.

Lloyd moved for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the DOL could not establish liability by arguing that Mr. Spillane was “perceived” to have engaged in a protected activity, that it could not establish that the two had engaged in a protected activity, and that the DOL could not establish causation between the protected activity and the terminations. The company also objected to the inclusion of “perception theory” in the jury instructions.

The judge dismissed Lloyd’s motion and rejected the company’s arguments regarding jury instructions. Although the company argued that because Mr. Spillane did not file an OSHA complaint until after his termination, and therefore did not engage in protected activity, the judge disagreed, noting in his opinion that Mr. Spillane engaged in protected activity by taking photographs of the plant machine, that the company believed or suspected that he had engaged in a protected activity, and that the jury found by a preponderance of the evidence that his protected activity was a substantial reason for his termination.

The judge also dismissed Lloyd Industries’ argument that the jury’s instructions on causation were improper or that insufficient evidence existed to allow the jury to find that Lloyd retaliated against Mr. Spillane, holding that the lack of any disciplinary or performance warnings on Mr. Spillane’s record, along with the lack of explanation for the termination and proximity to the activity, was “more than sufficient evidence” for the jury to have found that Mr. Spillane was retaliated against by his employer.

The judge also rejected Lloyd’s argument that the company is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because it terminated Mr. Sanna for the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason of failing to satisfy his managerial responsibilities. The jury heard testimony from Mr. Sanna stating that he had never been asked to perform health or safety inspections of the plant, provide training, and was not notified of the OSHA inspection, which the judge said was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that the company’s proffered reasons for terminating Mr. Sanna were pretext.

Lloyd Industries’ attorney declined to comment on the decision, and the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.