A veteran Philadelphia police officer who alleged whistleblower law
violations stemming from his raising concerns about the presence of asbestos in a police-run youth recreation center has been awarded $75,000 by a Common Pleas Court judge.
Judge John Milton Younge last week also awarded $195,183.51 in fees and costs to Layser & Freiwald, the law firm that represented 44-year-old Paul Zenak, a 23-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department.
Zenak filed a civil suit in the spring of 2012 claiming that his superiors at the police department retaliated against him when he complained about asbestos that had been discovered at the Wissinoming Police Athletic League Center.
The plaintiff, who had been assigned as the director of the center in 2008 after 17 years of beat work, alleged he suffered retaliation after he complained that a contractor hired to perform renovation work on the building was unqualified to receive the city’s contract because the man was not properly licensed to remove asbestos from the premises.
Asbestos, which for years was used as insulation in buildings, is a fiber that if inhaled could cause breathing problems and even lung cancer.
In his whistleblower complaint, Zenak said he was harassed and received disciplinary action, the first ever in his career, after he raised the asbestos issues.
He said he had to take a 16-month leave of absence to deal with the stress and accompanying health problems – aggravated asthma included – that he maintained were caused by the defendants’ actions.
Aaron Freiwald, Zenak’s attorney, previously told the Pennsylvania Record that public servants such as his client should be commended, not retaliated against, for raising concerns about wrongdoing.
He reiterated that sentiment in a recent email.
“We are gratified with the jury’s unanimous support for Officer Zenak and for the idea that whistleblowers should not be punished but should be praised,” Freiwald wrote. “There are still some appellate issues ahead but we are confident we will prevail.”
In late February, a 12-member Common Pleas Court jury agreed with Zenak that he suffered retaliation and an adverse impact on his employment as a result of his speaking out about the asbestos issues.
Judge Younge made his ruling on damages following a March 13 hearing, court records show.
In addition to ordering that Zenak be returned to his position at the Police Athletic League center, Younge also ordered the city, which was the only remaining defendant at the time the case came to trial – the church that houses the PAL center and the site contractor, J. Bailey Builders, previously reached confidential settlements with the plaintiff – to reimburse Zenak $75,000 for the 271.5 days that he was out of work.
The judge also awarded Zenak $411 in medical costs in connection with the plaintiff’s health issues, according to the judge’s opinion.
Freiwald explained that the monetary damages awarded to his client represented a reimbursement of the number of days Zenak missed work due to his leave of absence.