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CUMBERLAND COUNTY MAINE JURY AWARDS WHISTLEBLOWER $1,015,000 IN DAMAGES

On May 24, 2010, a Cumberland County Superior Court jury awarded Michael Afthim $1,015,000 in damages in connection with Mr. Afthim’s lawsuit against his former employer, Alternative Labor Resources (“ALR”) for violating Mr. Afthim’s rights under the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act and defamation.

Mr. Afthim was a superintendent employed by ALR. Mr. Afthim became concerned about a number of safety issues in the warehouse that he ran including the lack of ventilation, the company’s decision to use cheaper cotton gloves instead of splinter resistant leather gloves, and the insufficient staffing on the second shift. Mr. Afthim noted that the ventilation was so poor in the warehouse that his employees were inhaling significant amounts of dust and dirt. Mr. Afthim made multiple reports and complaints to ALR’s management about the ventilation issue but ALR did nothing. Mr. Afthim also noted that the company’s switch to cotton gloves from leather gloves was leading to significant splinters for his employees who spent their days constructing and repairing wooden pallets. Mr. Afthim also brought this concern to ALR without an adequate response. Mr. Afthim then noticed that due to understaffing that the workers on the second shift were rushing to keep up with their duties and he became very concerned that this would inevitably lead to a serious injury such as a fall or an accident with the fork lift. Once again, Mr. Afthim brought his concerns to ALR management and they expressed frustration with him for his complaints. ALR then fired Mr. Afthim for his complaints.

ALR subsequently lied about its reasons for terminating Mr. Afthim’s employment and told the Department of Labor and the Maine Human Rights Commission that Mr. Afthim had been terminated for poor performance. Also, Mr. Afthim was forced to disclose ALR’s false explanation for his termination to potential employers who would routinely ask why he had been terminated from his last place of employment. As a result Mr. Afthim suffered significant lost wages.

The first step in pursuing a whistleblower retaliation case in Maine is to file a Charge of Discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission. Mr. Afthim filed a Charge of Discrimination with the assistance of his attorneys. The Maine Human Rights Commission assigned an investigator and after investigating the case concluded that ALR had unlawfully retaliated against Mr. Afthim.

Mr. Afthim then filed his case in court. The court concluded that 1) Mr. Afthim had been terminated because of his reports about his employees’ safety in violation of the Maine Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) and the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act and then defamed Mr. Afthim which made it all the more difficult for him to find other work. The Court also ALR’s actions violated the (“MWPA”), and Maine’s common law prohibitation on defamation.

On May 24, 2010, the jury concluded that Mr. Afthim was entitled to $115,000 for lost wages, $200,000 for compensatory damages, and $700, 000 for punitive damages.

Maine’s Whistelblower Protection Act, 26 M.R.S.A. Sec. 831 et. seq., prohibits employers from terminating or otherwise retaliating against their employees for making good faith complaints about things that the employee believes to be unlawful and conditions that they reasonably believe put at risk the health and safety of individuals. The Act also protects employees who refuse to carry out directives from their employers that they believe to be unlawful or that they reasonably believe create a risk of serious injury or death to themselves or others. The Act also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for participating in a public investigation, hearing, or trial. Last, the Act protects workers in the health care field from reporting what they reasonably believe to be deviations from the applicable standard of care.

When a jury finds that an employer has violated an employee’s rights in the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, they may award the employee their lost wages and benefits, their attorneys fees, litigation costs, compensatory damages to compensate the employee for the harms and losses associated with the retaliation, and punitive damages to punish an employer.

Mr. Afthim was represented by Peter Thompson & Associates.