Phila. jury sides with whistleblower cop who raised concerns of asbestos in police-run youth athletic center

By Jon Campisi | Mar 5, 2014

A veteran Philadelphia police officer who hit the city with a lawsuit alleging

whistleblower law violations stemming from his complaining about asbestos inside a police-run youth recreation center has won his case in civil court.

Paul Zenak, who has been with the Philadelphia Police Department for more than two decades, filed suit in the spring of 2012 over claims that he was retaliated against after he raised concerns about asbestos inside the Wissinoming Police Athletic League Center.

In his complaint, Zenak, who had been assigned as the director of the center in 2008 after 17 years of working as a beat cop, alleged that he suffered retaliation by superiors after he complained that a contractor hired to perform work on the building was unqualified to receive the city’s contract.

Namely, Zenak asserted that contractor Joseph Bailey was not certified to remove asbestos from the site.

The fiber, which for years was used as building insulation, but was ultimately determined to be a cancer-causing agent, was apparently found to be lining a large pipe in a storage room that was designated to serve as a “homework room” for children attending the PAL center.

Members of the Wissinoming United Methodist Church, which houses the youth center, initially assured Zenak that the asbestos was confined to the boiler room.

Zenak claimed that he was ultimately subjected to retaliation after repeatedly raising concerns about the contractor and the asbestos issue.

The harassment and disciplinary actions – he received letters of reprimand for the first time in his two-decade career – caused the plaintiff to suffer severe emotional distress, the complaint stated.

A 12-member jury agreed with Zenak late last month, determining that the city’s retaliation was directly related to the plaintiff’s complaints of asbestos in areas that would be inhabited by youngsters doing after-school activities.

“When a public servant like a police officer speaks out about waste and wrongdoing, that person should be commended, not retaliated against,” said Aaron Freiwald, Zenak’s attorney. “We are gratified that the jury vindicated Officer Zenak. His main concern was always the children at his PAL Center and making sure that they were safe.”

Freiwald told the Pennsylvania Record that the Feb. 27 Philadelphia Common Pleas Court verdict, which was unanimous, proved that Zenak did, in fact, make a good faith report of wrongdoing or waste.

Jurors also determined that Zenak was retaliated against and that he suffered an adverse impact on his employment.

Freiwald said that his client had to take a 16-month leave of absence to deal with the stress and accompanying health problems that were caused by the defendants’ actions.

A March 13 hearing will determine the amount of damages to which Zenak is entitled, which includes job reinstatement, reimbursement for accrued leave time, medical costs and attorneys’ fees.

The statute, however, doesn’t provide for any compensatory or punitive damages in this case, Freiwald said.

The verdict was against the City of Philadelphia only, Freiwald said.

The contractor had been dismissed from the litigation early on, and both PAL and the church settled with Zenak last year, the terms of which are confidential.

Freiwald said that the value of the leave that his client used up was about $100,000, while the petition for attorneys’ fees is still being tabulated and will be presented to Common Pleas Court Judge John Younge.

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