Two Federal Agencies Battle In Federal Court Over Whistleblower Treatment
Talk about your inter-family disputes: one federal agency – the Department of Labor – has filed suit against the United States Postal Service, an independent federal agency (but one of the few explicitly authorized by the Constitution). The reason for the federal lawsuit, filed in Missouri: the Postal Service’s alleged poor treatment, firing, and alleged harassment of an employee who claims he blew the whistle on safety hazards in a mail facility.
Here’s the background, delivered despite any contrary weather: Thomas Purviance worked for the Postal Service for 35 years, most recently as a maintenance supervisor at a mail distribution center near St. Louis. He had no record of disciplinary or performance issues. In late December 2009, Purviance complained to his supervisors about what he perceived to be carbon monoxide and fuel oil leaks from some of the equipment at the center, as well as a pile of oil-soaked rags which he thought was a safety hazard. Getting no response, Purviance eventually called the local fire marshal and made a 911 call to report the carbon monoxide leak.
Of course, for this story to be Suitsworthy, it had to go further. Indeed, the Postal Service suspended Purviance, calling him a “disgruntled employee.” Then they went a step further, engaging in what Purviance alleges was a three-month campaign to get the local prosecutor to charge him with a making a false report – and during this campaign, he says, the Postal Service called him a drug user and a terrorist, without any factual basis. On the Postal Service’s word, Purviance was arrested, but all of the charges were later dropped. The Service then formally fired him in late 2010, giving the 911 call as one of its reasons – and another the fact that he had been arrested on charges of making a false report, even though the Postal Service had pushed to get those charges filed.
Purviance pushed back, filing a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. By mid-2011, the Postal Service appears to have recognized that this entire thing had gone a bit too far, rescinding its firing of Purviance and providing him most of the back pay he would have earned.
That retreat, though, is a day late and a dollar short for the Department of Labor, which has brought suit against the Postal Service. Labor alleges that the Postal Service’s conduct “discriminated against Purviance by…publicly disparaging him, and pursuing a baseless criminal complaint against him, because he exercised his rights under” the Occupational Safety and Health Act when he complained about the leaks and oily rags. The Department seeks Purviance’s missing back pay, compensatory damages, and his attorney’s fees, among other things; it also wants the Postal Service to “post in a prominent place for 60 consecutive days” a notice to all of its employees saying it won’t discriminate against them for reporting safety violations in the future.
How will this turn out? We never make predictions here, but we do know it won’t make Cabinet meetings uncomfortable for anyone because the Postmaster General has not been a member of the President’s Cabinet since 1971 (who knew?). What we do know, though, is that Purviance’s case is a reminder to everyone who deals with disgruntled employees and whistleblowers – whether maintenance supervisors or C-level executives – to be careful about how you handle departures and watch what you do or say about them after they leave.