Jury: Barretts Minerals wrongfully terminated 35-year employee, awards almost $300,000 in lost wages

Casey S. Elliott
Tuesday, September 20, 2022
On the stand

Mike English, right, testifies to the financial impact of his termination from Barretts Minerals in Fifth Judicial Court last week. Also pictured is one of English’s attorneys, Adam Cook. Casey S. Elliott photo

A 12-person jury last week determined Barretts Minerals administrators wrongfully terminated longtime employee Mike English, following a five-day trial in Fifth Judicial District Court.

The four-man, eight-woman jury deliberated four hours Friday. It decided English, then a mill maintenance technician, was discharged without good cause, that Barretts officials violated the company’s written personnel policies in his firing, and decided English lost $297,240 in wages and benefits as a result. The decision was not unanimous, and the jurors did not believe Barretts terminated English’s employment in retaliation for reporting a safety violation by one of his superiors.

Adam Cook, one of English’s attorneys, praised jurors for putting aside their personal obligations and spending a week reviewing the minutiae from both sides of the dispute.

“I know my client is very grateful and he is very happy the jury saw it his way,” he said.

Cook said they will ask Judge Luke Berger to award interest on the lost wages and benefits. He added he expects Barretts’ attorneys will appeal the case.

Attorneys Meghan Hill and Cody Laird directed any comments to a Barretts Minerals spokesperson, who could not be reached for comment by press time.

Case facts outlined

English filed a wrongful discharge suit against Barretts after his April 2019 termination.

Evidence presented indicated English had been injured on the job in October 2018, and had a similar incident which he reported in February 2019. English was restricted to light duty in his maintenance role and not allowed to lift over 25 lbs. English was accused of failing to immediately report the injury in line with Barretts’ safety policies both times, then later admitting to administrators that he exceeded his lifting restrictions for the 2019 incident. English was put on paid suspension and later terminated.

English’s attorneys argued he was given authorization to occasionally exceed the work restrictions, and the physician assistant treating him provided a letter to that effect. They also claimed Barretts fired English without following its own disciplinary procedures, and in retaliation for English filing a safety incident report against one of his supervisors. Barretts’ attorneys argued that the letter did not comply with their required form for such things and was given after the fact. They also claimed English had a pattern of failing to follow safety rules and policies, highlighting a documented infraction from 2012.

English sought $400,804.03 in lost wages (including potential overtime) and benefits from Barretts.

Safety focus highlighted

Attorneys and witnesses highlighted the safety culture at Barretts before and after the arrival of Plant Manager Josh Regan and Environmental Health and Safety Manager Brad Watkins in 2017. English, who said he put safety first before it was a priority of new management, recognized Regan and Watkins’ efforts to change the safety culture at the plant. English’s work ethic and dedication to safety were highlighted by former Barretts employees Mark Hatfield and Jamie Rogers.

English testified his safety report against Watkins for texting while driving was the main reason for his dismissal.

“I think they (Regan and Watkins) had a mission and were looking to get rid of me,” he said. Watkins said English could have said something while in the car as they headed to his doctor’s appointment.

“The way he did it, it came off as not a genuine concern about safety. It came off as an attempt to embarrass me,” Watkins said, adding if English told him he felt unsafe with Watkins texting and driving, he would have pulled over. “That’s how our (safety) program works.”

Watkins said he accepted responsibility for the text when it was brought up and was disciplined verbally for it, and that he had no hand in English’s disciplinary actions. He also testified safety was more important than productivity under him and Regan.

Watkins testified he heard English had told Regan he violated his lifting restrictions, and English “started backpedaling” when he realized he was in trouble.

“I was worried Mike had continually demonstrated that he was not concerned enough to protect himself or those around him, he was on three reportable injuries in his career, he was willing to take risks to get the job done, he accepted injuries were part of the way he worked, he was not reporting when he saw others put in danger. He was a genuine risk,” Watkins said.

Regan testified he found it difficult to fire English.

“He’s a knowledgeable employee, a hard worker. Terminating people is not the part of the job I take pleasure in,” he said. “I couldn’t ensure Mike wasn’t going to get hurt or put somebody else in harm’s way. This work is all about not taking shortcuts. If you take a shortcut, where’s the line?...I’ve seen too many things happen in my career from that behavior.

“(Mike English) was fired for exceeding his lifting restrictions, having a cavalier attitude for safety and accumulating events,” Regan added.

Attorneys push fairness, credibility

In closing arguments, Cook argued English never violated his lifting restrictions, there was no evidence presented to that fact, and Barretts did not follow its disciplinary policy when it fired him. Cook also pointed out Barretts officials said English had a string of safety violations, but only focused on one.

“(Regan) said it was one thing after another with Mike. But then we only talked about one thing – the time he slipped and tweaked his back....if we go all the way back to 2012 like the defense wants to, Mike English had technically four incidents...four incidents in seven years, that’s it,” he said. “I think credibility is important. You heard both Josh and Brad take the stand. They both testified and looked right at you and said, ‘we haven’t had a safety violation in three years, and we are extremely proud of that record.’ Then I got up here and they had to acknowledge they had a serious incident on Sunday – the day before the trial started.”

Cook reminded the jury that the company’s safety culture was not on trial, and questioned why a company so focused on following procedure and documenting infractions skipped steps in English’s termination.

“If you think the Barretts administration gave Mike a fair shake, then check that box on the verdict form. But if you think Mike – after 35 years of dedication – deserved better, then please hold Barretts accountable for what they’ve done,” he said.

Laird reminded the jury English admitted he may have exceeded his restrictions in his testimony, and physician assistant Walker and Regan both testified that English told them so. He added it was English who asked Walker for a letter amending those restrictions.

“A letter would not help, when every single document that Mr. Walker provided to Barretts provided specific instruction as to what Mr. English could and could not do – he was not to exceed 25 lbs.,” Laird said.

Regan testified he found it difficult to fire English, but said he could not allow risks to other employees, Laird reminded the jurors.

“When safety is as serious as it is at Barretts, when so many things could go so wrong so quickly, you have to make hard decisions,” he said. “Josh Regan and Barretts Minerals had to let go of a 35-year employee because Mr. English – to this day, to this very day – refuses to accept that at Barretts safety comes first, safety comes last, safety comes always.”