The federal district court for the District of Colorado recently held a supervisor personally liable for terminating an employee in retaliation for her safety complaints. Solis v. Brighton Medical Clinic (D. Colo. Sept. 2012).
Christhian Martinez, began working for Brighton Medical Clinic on August 3, 2009 as a medical clinic receptionist. On October 13, she notified the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of certain workplace safety concerns, including “the placement of certain boxes and malfunctioning telephones and doors.” The following day, the clinic received word of the complaint from OSHA, which did not disclose Martinez’s identity as the complainant. However, Martinez raised her concerns directly with her employer on October 26, and was summarily terminated on October 30.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) sued on Martinez’s behalf for retaliation, naming as defendants not only the clinic, but also Dr. Luithuk Zimik, the clinic’s sole officer, shareholder, and director, who made the decision to terminate Martinez’s employment. Dr. Zimik argued that he could not be held personally liable for the termination, since Martinez was employed by the clinic, and not by him directly.
The court agreed with the DOL, finding that OSHA’s anti-retaliation language is broad, covering any “person” who discriminates against any employee for exercising rights under federal workplace safety law. “Person,” concluded the court, includes not just the clinic as an employer, but also the individual who made the discriminatory decision.
“This case really brings home the importance of avoiding retaliation whenever an employee exercises a legal right,” says MSEC attorney Curtis Graves. “Even if an employee’s complaint is frivolous or totally lacking in merit, an employer can still be held liable—in some cases, personally—for a retaliatory adverse employment action.”