U.S. Department of Labor Finds North Star Behavioral Health Retaliated Against Whistleblower; Orders Payment of More than $200,000 in Damages

Timothy Tomlinson held the position of Lead Maintenance Technician at North Star Behavioral Health Palmer Residential Treatment Center (North Star) in Anchorage, AK. Tomlinson alleged that he was fired on April 21, 2010 in retaliation for voicing concerns about non-compliance with standards enforced under the Safe Drinking Water Act, for contacting the state of Alaska Department of Environmental Quality (ADEC), and for complaining about the lack of Material Safety Data Sheets and employee exposure to chemicals. Tomlinson had been suspended for similar conduct earlier in April 2010 and claimed he was subjected to hostile work environment beginning in June 2009. The U.S. Department of Labor conducted an investigation and found reasonable cause to believe that North Star violated the whistleblower protections of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Secretary issued formal findings, which include:
  • Even though [Tomlinson] put [North Star] on notice about his concerns, the established evidence shows that [North Star] would not tolerate employees, including [Tomlinson], contacting governmental agencies about safety concerns with severe repercussions. For this reason […North Star] is liable for the hostile work environment it created in 2009 […].
  •  On November 20, 2008, [Tomlinson] sent a memo to [North Star CEO] and his supervisor voicing concerns that [former supervisor Brad Ohs] was not certified. […Tomlinson’s] concerns were correct. […] It appears that for approximately thirteen (13) months, [North Star] allowed Ohs to work on its public water system without a certificate and contrary to the Alaska Administrative Code.
  • [North Star] had little tolerance for [Tomlinson’s] water-safety concerns. Upon learning that [Tomlinson] had contacted ADEC about [North Star’s] water system and unqualified operators, the CEO was overheard stating, “If I have a chance to get rid of [Tomlinson], I would.” 
  • The CEO was also overheard stating the company “can’t afford” to have employees raise concerns to government agencies.
  • Although {North Star] accused [Tomlinson] of creating several hazardous conditions shortly before he was fired, this accusation is not credible.
  • Exemplary damages are justified in this case because of [North Star’s] callous disregard for [Tomlinson’s] drinking water safety concerns and because [North Star] prohibited its employees from contacting government agencies about environmental safety and health concerns.
  • Emotional distress damages are justified in this case.
The Secretary ordered:
  1. Immediate reinstatement of Tomlinson
  2. Back wages in the amount of $932.20 per week from April 21, 2010 to Feb. 22, 2011 — a total of $55,143.84 as of Feb. 11, 2011.
  3. Pay differential between Tomlinson’s back wages and his interim earnings that were cut to 30 hours per week.
  4. North Star must pay Tomlinson interest on back wages — a total of $2,809.64 at time of decision.
  5. Compensatory damages:
    1. Transportation to job interviews — $48.01
    2. Medical expenses — $1,970.55
    3. Attorney fees — estimated to be $35,600
    4. Emotional Distress Damages — $75,000
  6. Exemplary damages for the callous and reckless disregard of Tomlinson’s protected activities, North Star must pay $100,000
  7. Post Notice to Employees
  8. Permanently post OSHA Whistleblower Fact Sheet
  9. No retaliation against Tomlinson
  10. Neutral reference for Tomlinson
  11. North Star to perform training about SWDA discrimination/retaliation protections