Suit Alleges Constitutional Right to Discuss Asbestos in Workplace

Asbestos lawsuit focuses on right to free speech.

In November 2014, a former Michigan public school custodian filed a disturbing federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that her former employer and its superintendants had violated her constitutional right to freedom of speech. Specifically, she claimed that her warnings to people that she believed may have been exposed to asbestos in two school buildings were protected speech about a matter of public concern.

In her complaint, the 33-year-old plaintiff alleges that her school-district employer had reprimanded her and threatened further discipline, including termination of employment, and ordered her to stop talking to anyone about the possibility that people in the buildings may have been exposed to asbestos when the district ordered its custodial staff to sand the wax off of asbestos-containing floor tiles.

The complaint contains dramatic allegations of a doctored investigation report and other evidence of a possible cover up.

The former employee asserts that instead of using a safer water-based wax-removal method, custodians were directed to sand the wax while dry instead, raising thick, white dust. Employees were not given protective equipment and were coated with the dust, including the insides of their mouths and eyes. They were then directed to clean up the dust, in which students had written messages.

Supervisory staff allegedly said the dry sanding was safe.

Asbestos-containing products, when disturbed, release invisible, deadly fibers into the air that can be breathed in. Asbestos-related diseases take decades to develop, but include fatal mesothelioma, a cancer of the outer linings surrounding the lungs, heart, and stomach organs; lung cancer; asbestosis, a painful lung disease in which breathing can be severely restricted; and more.

Considering that such disorders are life threatening, the plaintiff alleges she had the constitutionally protected right to speak out about the public health risk to those who had been in the district buildings at the times when tiles were sanded, including, in addition to custodial and teacher employees, both children and other adults who were there for activities like child care and student lunches. It is her belief that they should know so that they may seek appropriate medical monitoring.

The plaintiff was particularly concerned after learning that an employee who had dry sanded the tiles "for years" had died from mesothelioma.

The plaintiff contacted a local news organization and the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as warning people who may have been exposed. The district reportedly accused her of mischaracterizing the situation, but, in contrast, MIOSHA allegedly found serious violations of state workplace health standards.

According to the Detroit Free Press, while the defendants admit the dry sanding was a mistake, they deny many other allegations in the complaint.

Many will watch this suit with interest. If the parties do not reach a settlement, the plaintiff has requested a jury trial. She asks for compensatory damages, including money for missed wages, embarrassment and humiliation, pain and suffering, and reputational harm, as well as punitive damages (meant to punish and deter others from similar actions), legal fees and costs.

Keywords: asbestos, lawsuit, free speech, workplace, school, custodian, constitutional right, tile, school district, sand, dust, building, MIOSHA, damages, injury, death