Karen Rispoli has her job as a Metro light-rail operator back after an arbitrator ruled in her favor. Rispoli was initially terminated from her light-rail position after failing to close the train doors and carrying passengers for two miles. King County Metro, according to a Seattle Times story, felt her actions were major infractions, and fired her. However, those infractions were later downgraded and considered worthy only of a suspension. But, Rispoli was then suspended and permanently transferred out of the light-rail operations.
After hearing both sides, an arbitrator determined that Rispoli’s actions were neither major infractions nor worthy of a suspension. In fact, her actions were likely the result of improper training and Metro should have at most given her an oral reprimand. As a result of the arbitrator’s decision, Rispoli is supposed to be reinstated as a light-rail operator and be given compensation for any wages or benefits she lost during her “wrongful discipline.”
King County Metro did not comment on the decision, beyond stating that it will comply with the decision. However, Rispoli and others believe that Metro’s actions were the result of intentional targeting and manufacturing reasons for her termination. One reason they believe Metro was looking for reasons to terminate Rispoli was because Rispoli had a history of raising issues with her previous employers and with Metro. During the nine years before Rispoli began working for King County Metro, she filed lawsuits against three of her employers, claiming, among other things, sexual harassment, discrimination, and wrongful termination. All three of her employers decided to settle her claims rather than go to trial. She did, however, testify against her former employers in trials relating to her own claims after settling her claims.
Metro actually fired Rispoli, the first time, in 2000, due to “poor customer relations.” But, she won back on the theory that Metro was retaliating because of her testifying in trials against the Department of Youth Services, her former employer. She was then suspended in 2009 after reporting safety concerns, and it was not the first time she had reported concerns about light-rail safety problems. In fact, Metro took steps to correct the problems even though they suspended her. The incident leading to her current claim resulted from a faulty train door that she reported, and was supposedly fixed the day before the incident. The train’s door failed to close the following day, Rispoli believed the train would not have functioned with an open door, and Rispoli was not notified until the train had traveled two miles that the doors were open.
State and federal laws seek to encourage individuals to report violations. As a result, nearly every law relating to discrimination, workplace safety, and other employment issues contain provisions prohibiting retaliation. The provisions protect more than just those who report violations. Individuals who assist in investigations and, occasionally, those related to the “whistleblowers,” are protected from employer retaliation. The prohibitions encompass many employer actions, including termination, demotions, harassment, and even failure to hire an individual in some situations.
If you believe your employer has retaliated against you, contact an HKM employment law attorney for help.