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Mining Company That Sued Miner for Safety Complaints Ordered to Withdraw Suit

A Kentucky miner who was fired after raising workplace safety concerns has won his suit against his former employer.

Reuben Shemwell was terminated by Armstrong Coal in September 2011. He alleged that his firing was retaliation for his complaints about dangerous working conditions, and filed a safety discrimination complaint.

Outrageously, Armstrong then counter-sued Shemwell. The company filed in Kentucky state court, alleging that Shemwell’s complaint was “wrongful use of civil proceedings.” Shemwell’s attorney said it was “the first time I know of anywhere in the country where a company has sued a miner for filing a discrimination complaint.”

Last week, the judge ordered that Armstrong withdraw its counter-suit, which he said violated whistleblower protections.

As the Huffington Post pointed out, the victory is significant: “The stakes of an expensive legal battle are very different for miners and for a company like Armstrong: its parent company, Armstrong Energy, had revenues of $300 million in 2011.”

Litigation alleging that Shemwell was wrongfully terminated is ongoing. Per the same article, when the company sued Shemwell, “[t]he Labor Department then turned around and filed a fresh discrimination complaint against Armstrong, arguing that [the firm’s] civil lawsuit in itself was a form of retaliation against the miner.”

The rights of whistleblowers are important for all workers, but miners face especially dangerous workplace conditions. It is contemptible that Armstrong would sue their former employee for raising concerns; we applaud the judge’s decision and will watch the development of Shemwell’s litigation with interest.

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