A contractor in Massachusetts has been ordered by a jury to pay $650,000 to one of its former workers for retaliating against him after he reported an injury.
Jose Martin Paz Flores was an employee of Tara Construction Inc. and fell from a ladder March 29, 2017, while working as a drywall taper. He broke his leg. The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration investigated the incident.
Two to three weeks after the injury, Tara CEO Pedro Pirez called a Boston police detective to have Paz’s identification looked into. The detective alerted a sergeant with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
On May 10, 2017, ICE worked with Pirez to arrest Paz, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That occurred when Paz went to Tara Construction that day to pick up some money from Pirez. As he drove away from the business, he was stopped and arrested while his toddler son was in the car. Pirez had been in contact with ICE ahead of the arrest and let them know Paz would be coming to pick up the money.
On February 27, 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against Tara Construction and Pirez for retaliating against Paz in violation of whistleblower protection under the OSH Act. The protection stands regardless of immigration status and includes reporting an injury, OSHA says.
The lawsuit referred to text messages, phone records and statements from law enforcement that Pirez had helped arrange Paz’s arrest. Pirez denied doing anything wrong and said he had alerted police because Paz used a different first name for his employment than the name given at the hospital. He denied helping to arrange his arrest.
The suit says Paz would not have been arrested if he had not reported his injury. It cited the closeness in time of Pirez’s actions and when Paz was injured.
“An investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program concluded that the defendants’ actions constituted retaliation against the employee for protected activity under the OSH Act and would dissuade a reasonable worker from reporting an injury,” the Department of Labor says.
The lawsuit sought lost wages and damages for Paz, including for emotional distress caused by his arrest and the fear and anxiety the retaliation caused. It accused his former employer of “intentional or reckless disregard for the law … and callous indifference to Paz’s rights under the Act.”
Tara Construction and Pirez denied any wrongdoing and said the actions “were the product of legitimately non-retaliatory motives and concerns.”
On June 21, 2022, a jury in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts found that Tara Construction and Pirez retaliated against Paz. Pirez was ordered to pay $400,000 and Tara $200,000 in punitive damages. Paz was also awarded $50,000 for emotional distress.
The Department of Labor has filed a motion that would require Tara Construction to provide a neutral letter of reference for Paz, expunge from its files any information regarding the adverse action against Paz, and notify all of its employees of their whistleblower rights under the OSH Act.
“The Occupational Safety and Health Act prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their rights under the Act, regardless of the employees’ immigration status,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Galen Blanton in Boston. “This includes reporting injuries and causing an investigation or any proceeding under or related to the Act. This verdict sends a strong message to employers that there will be severe consequences when they violate the law and employee rights.”