Business

Idaho judge orders Clearwater Paper to pay whistleblower $234,751

CORRECTION: Clearwater Paper Corp. did not have the opportunity for a timely response to this story because the Statesman used an incorrect email address to reach out to a company spokesman. Clearwater’s response is included below.

Clearwater Paper Corp. employee Anthony Tenny complained to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration about health hazards at the company’s Lewiston sawmill. About a month later Clearwater fired him.

A federal judge this week found that Spokane-based Clearwater fired Tenny in retaliation for the complaint and ordered the company to pay him $234,751.

“There are many things we disagree with in the decision,” said Clearwater Paper spokesman Matt Van Vleet. “We are reviewing the decision and assessing whether we will appeal the matter.”

According to court documents, Tenny began working at the sawmill in February 2004. He earned several promotions and received only positive performance evaluations.

Tenny repeatedly expressed concerns to Clearwater that employees were being exposed to excessive levels of red-cedar dust because of an old filtration system that frequently broke down.

Tenny anonymously contacted OSHA on May 19, 2010. The agency inspected the plant on May 28 that year but didn’t issue any citations.

On June 25, Clearwater fired Tenny for what it said was insubordination and other issues unrelated to the OSHA complaint, according to court documents. After Clearwater fired him, Tenny filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor.

The department sued in 2013, accusing Clearwater of retaliation.

After a four-day bench trial, U.S. District Court Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill called Clearwater’s charge of insubordination “preposterous” and said Tenny’s claim that he was set up to be fired was “not unfounded.”

“The court therefore finds that all of the reasons advanced by Clearwater for firing Tenny … are a fabrication intended to hide the real reason for Tenny’s termination,” Winmill wrote in his April 20 decision. “The court further finds that the real reason Tenny was fired was because he filed an OSHA complaint.”

Winmill on Wednesday awarded Tenny damages of $234,751: $108,138 in economic damages and $76,613 in punitive damages, and $50,000 for emotional distress.

Winmill issued an injunction against Clearwater, which does business nationally, barring it from retaliating against employees who make OSHA reports.

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

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