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Perez v. Clearwater Paper Corporation

United States District Court, D. Idaho

July 30, 2015



B. LYNN WINMILL, Chief District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendant Clearwater Paper Corporation's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 31). The Court heard oral argument on June 9, 2015, and ruled from the bench, denying summary judgment. This written decision memorializes the Court's oral ruling.


Plaintiff Thomas E. Perez, in his capacity as Secretary of Labor for the United States Department of Labor, asserts a claim against the Clearwater Paper Corporation under the whistleblower provisions set forth in Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The Secretary alleges that Clearwater retaliated against its former employee, Anthony Tenny, because he complained to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") about red cedar dust in its Lewiston, Idaho sawmill.

Tenny worked at the Lewiston sawmill owned by Clearwater for approximately six years, during which he earned several promotions and received only positive performance evaluations. According to the Secretary, this changed after Tenny began making safety complaints about the levels of red cedar dust in the mill. The Secretary alleges that after Tenny made these complaints, which Tenny's supervisor did not address, Tenny was subject to "several distinct employment actions, " including suspension, being subject to a drug test without cause, and ultimately termination. Pl's Resp. Br. at 2, Dkt. 33.

1. Tenny's Employment and OSHA Complaint

Tenny's employment at the mill began in February 2004, and by July 2005, he was working as a benchman or a "filer." Def's SUF ¶ 3, Dkt. 31-1. Filers are responsible for "benching" (preparing and repairing) blades for their assigned saws and performing certain routine maintenance on those saws. At the time Tenny worked at the mill, the filers were supervised by File Room Supervisor Guy Ciechanowski, who reported to Sawmill Superintendent Ron Schmittle. Id. ¶ 4. Schmittle reported to Mill Manager Dana Schmitz. Id.

In April and May of 2010, according to Tenny, the mill processed Western Red Cedar when the dust collection was regularly inoperable. Pl's SUF. ¶ 1, Dkt. 33-1. Western Red Cedar is drier than other types of wood and, consequently, creates more dust than other species when processed. Id. Tenny maintains that the dust collection system was inoperable roughly 50% of the time. Id. And during these times, the dust was so thick in the air at the mill that workers had trouble breathing, visibility was difficult, and surfaces became slick. Id.

Tenny says that he complained to his supervisor, Ciechanowski, about the dust posing a safety and health hazard on multiple occasions throughout April and May 2010, Ciechanowski refused to take action. Id. ¶ 2. Id. Because Tenny perceived that Ciechanowski was doing nothing to address the issue, Tenny contacted OSHA and spoke with an inspector regarding his concerns about the red cedar dust. Tenny filed a formal complaint with OSHA on May 19, 2010. Id. ¶ 3.

Tenny did not tell anyone at the mill that he had complained to OSHA because he feared that management would retaliate against him if it became known he had made the complaint. Id. ¶ 6. Nevertheless, Tenny noticed that Ciechanowski began treating him differently after he made the complaints. Id. at ¶ 7. Tenny claims that Ciechanowski started "overly scrutinizing his work and demanding additional work of him as compared to the other saw filers." Id.

2. Tenny's Non-OSHA-Related Complaints

Around the time that Tenny complained to Ciechanowski about the red cedar dust and made his OSHA complaint, Sawmill Superintendent Ron Schmittle began conducting meetings with File Room employees to address concerns about communications, training and other issues, including concerns that Tenny had raised during one-on-one conversations with Mill Manager Dana Schmitz. Def.'s SUF ¶ 4. Schmitz testified that he felt Tenny was trying to control the discussion, push his own agenda, and use these meetings to criticize co-works to whom he felt superior. Id. ¶ 8.

After the meetings began, Tenny began emailing Schmitz with meeting summaries, which accused Ciechanowski of being "unprofessional, " lacking "a basic level of leadership to be in a supervisory position, " "irrational", and "suggesting ideas that are waste of time and resources." Id. ¶ 9. The summaries also made accusations against Schmittle, including that Schmittle conveyed "misleading and misinformations" and conducted meetings in an "autocratic style." Id. Schmitz did not counsel Tenny about the emails, but apparently he became irritated after several weeks of the emails because Tenny kept raising new issues as his previous ones were addressed, complained about issues that no other filers were mentioning, and became more vocal about his issues and "vicious" in his criticisms of Schmittle and Ciechanowski. Id. ¶ 11.

On June 16, 2010, Tenny confronted Ciechanowski about whether or not he had posted a notice informing filers that an upcoming meeting had been cancelled due to Schmittle's absence. Tenny contends that Ciechanowski told him to dig the note out of the garbage, and when he did so Ciechanowski snatched it away and called him insubordinate. Ciechanowski contends he only called Tenny ...

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