LOUISVILLE — A judge has ruled that an Eastern Kentucky miner with a history of whistle-blowing activities should get his job back and that the coal company that fired him should pay a $30,000 fine for dismissing him and for discriminatory practices.
Administrative Law Judge Margaret A. Miller concluded last week that Cumberland River Coal Co. improperly fired Charles Scott Howard, 52, of Letcher County in May 2011 after he was injured on the job 10 months earlier. Miller concluded in the 12-page decision that Cumberland River Coal and its parent company, Arch Coal, went to great lengths to justify dismissing Howard after he alerted federal officials about his mine.
Howard challenged the dismissal, saying Cumberland River Coal and Arch Coal dismissed him because he had publicized safety issues in the mines. In court papers, Cumberland Coal and Arch Coal denied that allegation.
Howard has a history of whistle-blowing activities involving coal mines. Judges reinstated him to his job at least twice before, including in August 2010 in a separate case involving Cumberland River and Arch Coal.
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"It is obvious that CRCC worked diligently to end Howard's employment," Miller wrote.
The latest issue arose when Howard was injured while working alone in June 2010. A number of doctors treated him, and most cleared him to return to work, with doctors working for the coal companies suggesting work restrictions for Howard.
"The mine waited until every doctor, including two neurosurgeons, two eye doctors, a psychiatrist and others found no impairment and agreed (Howard could) return to work," Miller wrote.
Only then, Miller noted, did a doctor working for the companies issue a medical finding that Howard, who suffered a head injury, no longer could work in coal mining.
"I find that the mine sought out and received the opinion they were seeking and immediately upon receipt of that single opinion, terminated Howard's employment," Miller wrote.
A message left for a spokesman for Arch Coal was not returned Tuesday afternoon.
Howard's whistle-blowing activities started in March 2007, when he testified before a congressional committee about mine safety. In April 2007, Howard made a video of leaking mine seals, which drew the attention of Cumberland River Coal and Arch executives. Howard challenged a reprimand issued by the company as well as four discrimination complaints against his employer.
Howard sued Cumberland River Coal in May 2011 over safety issues, not long before he was fired. U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar dismissed the suit in December, saying Howard waited too long to file suit.