Energy West Pays $20,000 Fine After Unjustly Firing Employee

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Energy West Mining Co. was recently fined $20,000 after firing a miner for allegedly making a false claim of harassment. Additionally, Review Commission Judge L. Zane Gill said the company’s investigation was not credible and ordered the miner to be reinstated with no negative reference on his employment record.

According to court documents, Ralph Keele had been employed at Deer Creek Mine since 1981. During his career at the mine, Keele worked mostly as a mechanic electrician. In January 2012, he was given the position of surface diesel mechanic. In that position, it was Keele’s weekly duty to perform permissibility inspections on every piece of diesel equipment at the mine.

“Diesel mechanics also perform repairs on mantrips, small trucks and haulage equipment,” court documents state. “As a practice, if a problem with a piece of diesel equipment was easy to fix, the mechanics fixed it right away. If not, they tagged the equipment out of service.”

On Dec. 17, 2012, Keele performed permissibility inspections and tagged out of service seven mantrips and one duster. Keele and another mechanic were instructed to fix the mantrips that did not require much work and get them back in service. Keele testified that assistant mine manager Rick Poulson became “quite upset” that the mantrips were tagged out. Administrative upset led Keele and the other mechanic to believe that they were going to be fired for tagging the mantrips.

Later, Keele testified that Poulson approached him from behind while he was working on a mantrip and prodded him in his buttocks, sarcastically saying “Good job, buddy. Way to go. Good job.”

Poulson testified that his “good job” statements were not sarcastic and intended to praise Keele.

Video footage from the incident did not show the entire encounter but does show some interaction between Keele and Poulson.

According to Keele’s testimony, he contacted the Emery County Sheriff’s Office following the incident to initiate a complaint against Poulson for sexual assault. The following day, Keele also filed a complaint via the company’s ethics hotline, alleging that his job was threatened by administration. That same day, Keele filed a complaint with MSHA. Poulson was informed of the complaint later that day.

The next day, Keele was told by his foreman that he had to go into the mine office because he had called the “1-800-squeal-pig number.” It was there with his union representative that he was questioned by Debra Stone, who worked for Evolutionary HR and was hired to conduct an investigation into Keele’s hotline complaint.

On March 5, 2013, the decision to terminate Keele was made. Poulson testified that he participated in the discussion to fire Keele but that the decision was ultimately made by the vice president of operations for the company. Two days later, Keele was informed by administration of his suspension with intent to discharge for making false statements against the company.

According to court documents, the company did not follow up on the allegations against Poulson. Although the sheriff¹s office declined to prosecute Paulson, Keele was never charged with filing a false complaint.

The company said there were labor negotiations going on at this time. It was suggested by the vice president of operations that Keele was exploiting that to help the union¹s cause, and that his actions were done as part of a larger union plot to cause the company trouble during contract negotiations. Poulson had also made a comment that by tagging out the mantrips when he did, Keele cost the company upwards of $400/minute in lost production.

“From this I conclude that the company harbored animus towards the union in general, and Keele in particular,” Judge Gill wrote. “I find also that this animus permeated the investigation of Keele’s allegation of assault, management’s deliberations and the ultimate decision to terminate Keele’s employment… Animus is evident in the way the company investigated Keele’s assault complaint against mine manager Rick Poulson and in the process used to reach the decision to fire Keele, in particular with regard to the way management applied the company’s code of business conduct and equal employment opportunity, discrimination and harassment policies. This animus calls into question the bonafides of the company’s reaction to Keele’s protected activity and related complaints.”

While the company argued that ”decision makers were careful to assess the evidence available to them and to apply the applicable policy statements in an even-handed manner,” Judge Gill disagreed stating, “The process used to fire Keele lacks credibility and was not applied in good faith. This conclusion is the result of weighing credibility, not just substituting judgment.”

Judge Gill then ruled that Energy West pay the $20,000 fine in regards to the case as well as expunge Keele’s employment record of any negative references or statements regarding the case or any claim that Keele made false statements.

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