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Court Reinstates Miner’s Discrimination Case

(CN) - The Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Commission "departed from its own precedent" in upholding the firing of a miner who claimed he was canned for reporting safety violations, the 6th Circuit ruled. Highland Mining Co. claimed it fired him for harassing office staff and brawling with a co-worker.

Lawrence Pendley argued that Highland suspended and later fired him in retaliation for filing safety complaints after he was injured in a mine accident in Morganfield, Ky. He allegedly hurt his back when a mining car came to a sudden stop.

His complaints prompted the Secretary of Labor to file three claims against Highland, claiming the company discriminated against him over his safety reports, wrongfully fired him and continued to discriminate against him after he was temporarily reinstated.

Highland, however, insisted that it fired Pendley for harassing office staff, interfering with a safety check and assaulting a fellow miner.

An administrative law judge determined that Pendley had been wrongfully suspended for three days in 2005, but upheld the coal miner's 2007 firing and found no post-reinstatement discrimination.

The safety commission affirmed in a 2-1 decision.

On appeal, the Cincinnati-based panel said the commission "committed reversible error" in upholding the administrative law judge's ruling without explaining why it departed from precedent.

The judge had discredited one of Highland's three justifications for the firing -- that Pendley had interfered with a safety check -- but explained that his confrontations with office staff and a co-worker were "enough" to warrant termination.

"[T]he Commission may not disbelieve part of an operator's justification but nonetheless hold that in the Commission's own view part of the asserted justification was 'enough' to support the adverse action," Chief U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla wrote for the circuit panel (original emphasis).

The court also reversed the commission's finding that Pendley was not discriminated against after his reinstatement, saying the commission needs to "reconsider its own precedent and the purposes of the Mine Act."

However, the court declined to analyze Pendley's claims under the Supreme Court's "objective reasonable worker standard," as Pendley had urged, saying it wasn't necessary.

"The Court can resolve the questions presented by Petitioner's case on the grounds noted above, namely that the Commission failed to follow or distinguish its own precedent and failed to articulate its reasoning," McCalla wrote.

Pendley's case drew support from the United Mine Workers, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on his behalf.

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