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Cleveland Hopkins International Airport Whistleblower Files First Amendment Lawsuit, Alleging Retaliation for Reporting Safety Violations to the FAA

CLEVELAND, OHIO - Two years after his unceremonious removal from the Field-Maintenance Manager post at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport, Mayfield Heights resident Abdul-Malik Ali today filed an amended lawsuit in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. Ali, who on February 18, 2015 told the Federal Aviation Administration about how the Airport was systematically failing to meet FAA-mandated staffing levels for its snow-and-ice-removal operations―and who was booted from his job the very next day―claims that there is an undeniable connection between these two events. He seeks reinstatement to his former position as well as economic and non-economic damages caused by the Airport's retaliatory actions.

Ali's First Amended Complaint names the City of Cleveland, former Port Control Director Ricky Smith, current Port Control Director Robert W. Kennedy, and several other City and Port Control officials as defendants in the case. "Both individually and in concert with other Defendants," the Complaint alleges, these defendants "committed, encouraged, and/or failed to abate various retaliatory acts and omissions against Mr. Ali ..." on account of Ali's whistleblowing activities. This conduct, according to the Complaint, violates First and Fourteenth Amendment free-speech guarantees as well as state criminal statutes prohibiting intimidation and interference with civil rights. (Another state statute, cited in the Complaint, permits civil redress for criminal offenses.)

The Complaint recounts how, before his demotion, Ali frequently complained to Airport officials about insufficient staffing of the Airport's snow-and-ice-removal operations. This situation not only violated FAA regulations, according to the Complaint, but created unsafe conditions and resulted in several aircraft "diversions," i.e., occasions on which pilots refused to land at Hopkins and were re-routed to other airports.

After his complaints had been ignored for many months, Ali finally met with an FAA investigator and blew the whistle on the Airport's repeated violations. The investigator, the Complaint says, "was stunned and dismayed by Mr. Ali's information. He shook his head in disbelief and remarked that 'I can't believe they've been lying to me this whole time' or words to that effect."

Since leaving his post as Port Control Director to head the Maryland Aviation Administration, Ricky Smith has publicly blamed CLE's staffing shortages on job cuts, including some snow-removal positions, ordered by Mayor Frank Jackson. The Jackson administration has since provided documents that, according to the Complaint, show that accusation to be false.

Within hours of his meeting with the FAA investigator, according to the Complaint, Port Control Director Ricky Smith penned a memo "reassigning" Ali from his position at the helm of Field Maintenance. Ali now occupies a "cramped room" on the Airport's baggage-claim level and is assigned only menial tasks such as counting trashcans. The Complaint also describes how Ali's City vehicle was taken away and how he was stripped of his security clearances, as well as the various other ways in which he has experienced retaliation.

The Complaint also describes how other employees have, more recently, been victimized by the Airport's "culture of retaliation," recounting among other things a recorded meeting in which the new Field-Maintenance Manager threatened that "penalties will be great" for leakers or anyone "caught associating" with such activity. Hope that things Director Kennedy's new leadership would improve things, moreover, have been dashed by Kennedy's "contemptuous" attitude toward Ali and his whistleblowing. "If anything, Defendant Kennedy's actions have made the culture of fear worse," the Complaint alleges.

Federal agencies have supported Ali's quest for safety and justice. The Complaint quotes a letter to Ali from the FAA, which reports that the agency's investigation had "substantiated that a violation of an order, regulation or standard of the FAA related to air carrier safety occurred" and thanked Ali for bringing the matter to its attention. The investigation also led directly to the FAA's imposition of an unprecedented $735,000 fine against the Airport, which according to the Complaint the FAA reduced to $200,000 pending the Airport's satisfactory completion of several stated performance objectives.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has also seen things Ali's way so far. In a preliminary ruling from which the Complaint quotes, the agency recently determined that Ali "engaged in protected activity on a significant number of occasions over the course of a year and a half when he objected to lack of de-icing chemical acquisitions and lack of available staffing to support the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandated Snow and Ice Control Plan (SICP)" and that there is "reasonable cause" to conclude that the City and Airport have violated federal anti-retaliation laws that apply in the aviation industry.

Subodh Chandra, Ali's lead counsel, said, "It is unfortunate that Mr. Ali has had to file a lawsuit to shine a light on the Airport's suppression of free speech and culture of retaliation. It apparently is not enough that both the FAA and OSHA recognize the problem. Mr. Ali should be celebrated for exposing conditions that create great risks for the traveling public, not treated like a pariah. We hope that at some point soon the city administration snaps out of its cruel treatment of Mr. Ali."

Ali's suit is captioned Ali v. City of Cleveland et al., Case No. CV-17876159, and is pending in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. In addition to Chandra, Ali represented by Donald Screen and Marvin Brown of The Chandra Law Firm LLC, www.ChandraLaw.com.

The amended complaint may be read here.

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