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Cleveland settles airport whistleblower’s First Amendment-retaliation lawsuit

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Cleveland Hopkins International Airport airfield-maintenance manager alerted FAA to safety violations. OSHA found he endured immediate retaliation. The total recovery now exceeds $500,000.

CLEVELAND, OHIO – On Friday, October 5, the City of Cleveland agreed to pay whistleblower Abdul Malik-Ali an additional $425,000, plus increased wage compensation of $3,210 per year, to settle a federal First Amendment-retaliation suit against the City and various officials arising from Mr. Ali’s reports to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of serious airport safety violations. The amount is in addition to the $95,798 in damages and attorneys’ fees and expenses that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), in a May 23, 2017 letter, awarded for the retaliation, and brings the total amount for which the City is responsible to remedy the retaliation to $520,798, plus the wage increase.

The agreement followed a mediation in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio conducted by Magistrate Judge Jonathan Greenberg.

In 2015, Mr. Ali, who is the airport’s airfield-maintenance manager, told the FAA that the airport regularly failed to meet FAA-mandated staffing levels for its snow-and-ice-removal operations. The failures resulted in diverted and cancelled flights and put passengers at risk. Hours after Mr. Ali blew the whistle, then-airport-director Ricky D. Smith, Sr. (who now directs Baltimore-Washington International Airport), immediately “reassigned” Mr. Ali to a makeshift closet at the airport where he was given only menial “makework” like monitoring trash levels in dumpsters. Stripped of his supervisory responsibilities, Mr. Ali suffered deep humiliation and continued harassment.

Mr. Ali reported the retaliation to OSHA, which, following an investigation, agreed with him and ordered him reinstated to his former, managerial position and awarded emotional-distress damages and attorneys’ fees. The FAA went on to impose a record $735,000 civil penalty on Cleveland (later reduced to $200,000) based on the safety violations Mr. Ali brought to the FAA's attention.

Mr. Ali also filed a 2017 lawsuit in which he claimed that the airport had violated his First Amendment rights and other rights arising under Ohio law. It is that lawsuit, captioned Ali v. City of Cleveland et al., Case No. 1:17-cv-00634, that the City agreed to resolve on Friday. Individually named defendants in the case included former Port Control (airport) Director Ricky D. Smith, Sr.; Fred Szabo, Jeanette Saunders, current airport Director Robert W. Kennedy, and Edward Rybka.

The settlement provides that Ali will be paid $425,000 in three installments over the next year. As part of the settlement, the City also agreed to

  • increase Ali’s annual salary by $3,210;
  • abide by all of OSHA’s directives and implement all its remedies;
  • purge Ali’s personnel file of all disciplinary letters and reports connected to his whistleblowing, including a 15-day suspension he received for placing an emergency order of de-icing chemicals to clear runways and protect the public;
  • not impair Ali’s participation in any federal or state proceeding or investigation that may be launched into Ricky Smith’s conduct while at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

Since Ali’s reinstatement to his previous managerial position overseeing airfield maintenance, runway safety has vastly improved. On September 20, 2018, following an FAA inspection, the airport received the agency’s highest safety rating—receiving no letters of correction.

On May 30, 2017, the editorial board of the Plain Dealer and commended Mr. Ali for "being willing to put his own job on the line and report dangerous conditions"—and took the rare step of urging the City to "swiftly settle" with Mr. Ali.

Ali's lead counsel, Subodh Chandra, said, "Mr. Ali did the right thing in informing the FAA about safety concerns, and should never have endured retaliation for doing so. Mayor Jackson should nominate Mr. Ali for the John F. Kennedy Profile-in-Courage Award."

Ali is represented by Chandra, Donald Screen, and Patrick Kabat of the Chandra Law Firm LLC,

Related Practice Areas
Constitutional LawFirst AmendmentWhistleblower Actions (False Claims Act)

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