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Cleveland to pay airport whistleblower $425,000 to settle civil rights lawsuit

October 10, 2018

Cleveland to pay airport whistleblower $425,000 to settle civil rights lawsuit

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The city of Cleveland will pay $425,000 to settle a lawsuit that a whistleblower at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport filed after airport leadership retaliated against him for reporting safety concerns to the federal government. 

The airport also will increase Abdul Malik-Ali’s pay more than $3,200 a year and purge his personnel file of all disciplinary letters and reports connected to his whistleblowing, including a 15-day suspension he got after placing an emergency order of de-icing chemicals to clear runways. 

The settlement, reached Oct. 5 following a mediation in the U.S. District Court, closes a case that will ultimately cost the city more than $500,000 in fines, damages and attorney costs, plus the city’s own lawyering costs. 

“Mr. Ali did the right thing in informing the FAA about safety concerns and should never have endured retaliation for doing so,” attorney Subodh Chandra, Ali’s lawyer, said. “Mayor [Frank] Jackson should nominate Mr. Ali for the John F. Kennedy Profile-in-Courage Award.” 

The Jackson administration did not have an immediate comment. 

Ali, the airport’s manager of field maintenance, was punished in 2015 after he raised safety concerns over inadequate staffing to handle snow removal when he met with an FAA inspector. He previously had raised those concerns with the airport’s administration. 

The inspector was alarmed by the staffing levels and responded by saying “this is unbelievable,” according to an investigatory report from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The next day the inspector checked the airfield to observe snow operations.  

One month later, the FAA levied a $735,000 civil penalty against the airport for violating regulations regarding snow removal and aircraft safety.   

Then-airport Director Ricky Smith moved quickly after hearing of Ali’s meeting, deciding within hours to demote Ali, OSHA found. Ali’s office was moved into a makeshift closet, he was stripped of his supervisory authority and ordered to do menial tasks such as monitoring trash levels in dumpsters.  

In May 2017, OSHA ruled the airport had unlawfully retaliated against Ali and ordered he be paid nearly $96,000 for lost compensation, pain and suffering and attorney fees. It also ordered Ali’s immediate reinstatement and demanded the airport post notices and email employees to report that it was found at fault for retaliation. 

The new settlement resolves Ali’s civil suit that complained Cleveland had violated his constitutional rights when it stripped him of his position. 

You can read the complaint below. Mobile users click here.

As part of the settlement, the city also agreed to:  

Abide by all of OSHA’s directives and implement all its ordered remedies. Not impair Ali’s participation in any federal or state proceeding or investigation that may be launched into Smith’s conduct while at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. 

Smith left Hopkins in July 2015. He now is the executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, responsible for the management of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and other aviation activities. 

Smith could not be reached for comment. 

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