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Court holds union officials liable for wrongful termination

Persons who question the actions of their superiors are often the target of retaliation by the employer, especially when the alleged misconduct involves mishandling funds. A recent ruling by a Federal judge demonstrates how the law - in this case, a federal statute - protects whistleblowers against such retaliation.

The U.S. Labor Department sued the business agent for a Southern California union, the Masons Union Local 600, and the attorney for the union's pension plan trusts alleging that they had fired the trusts' audit director when she questioned the manner in which the business agent handled the trusts' assets. The Labor Department also alleged that the business agent and the lawyer wrongfully terminated a second employee when she made similar complaints.

In his ruling, Federal Judge John Kronstadt held that the actions of the business agent and the lawyer violated the whistle-blower protection provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"). The court permanently banned both defendants from occupying any position with the trust funds. The court also ordered the lawyer and her firm to repay $61,000 in fees. The court also found that the business agent and the lawyer had engaged in a conflict of interest for failing to disclose their personal relationship to union and trust officials. An independent criminal investigation against the business agent is still pending. (In 2015, in a private lawsuit brought by the employers, the pension funds trustees and the plans' administrators agreed to pay a total of $830,000 in damages for their wrongful termination of the same employees.)

The decision to call attention to allegedly wrongful acts of superiors is always a risky choice, but this case and many others demonstrate that the law offers protection to persons who have the courage to take such actions. Anyone fired or facing the possibility of being fired after calling attention to one or more misdeeds by a superior may wish to consult an attorney who specializes in representing persons who have been wrongfully terminated. Such a consultation can provide a useful analysis of the facts and law of the case and the enumeration of legal strategies that can lead to a positive outcome for the employee.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Court finds cement masons union official and attorney retaliated against whistle-blowers," Paul Pringle, Aug. 2, 2016

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