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Metro fights union lawsuit to reinstate L’Enfant Plaza tunnel inspector

Commuters on a crowded escalator at Metro’s L’Enfant Plaza station. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

Metro is fighting its largest union, which has sued to reinstate a tunnel fan inspector who was fired after last year’s L’Enfant Plaza smoke disaster for allegedly falsifying an inspection report and later lying about his actions.

In documents filed Friday in U.S. District Court, Metro’s attorneys argued that the agency was well within its rights to terminate the mechanic and to reject the decision of an arbitration board, which had declared that the 13-year veteran of Metro should instead be suspended without pay for 180 days.

Metro wants the court to nullify the arbitration board’s decision.

“If the arbitration decision is not vacated, [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s] transit patrons, employees, and the general public will be subjected to serious risk of physical harm and injury by the return of an employee to work on critical safety equipment despite repeated prior incidents of false statements,” Metro argued in the complaint.

Metro’s filed the counterclaim in response to a lawsuit filed last month by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689. The union argued that the agency had wrongfully terminated the mechanic, Seyoum Haile, and was using him as a scapegoat instead of placing responsibility on supervisors who were charged with verifying inspection reports.

Union sues to reinstate Metro mechanic fired after L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident

Haile’s actions came to light in the aftermath of the January 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident, which resulted in the death of one rider and injured dozens more. During the ensuing investigation, officials checked inspection logs and realized that the November 2014 inspection had not been properly conducted, even though Haile submitted an inspection report saying that it had. Later, Metro says, Haile lied during his interview with investigators.

“The fan shaft is a critical fire/life-safety system,” Metro wrote in its response. “During WMATA’s investigation, WMATA gave Mr. Haile several opportunities to provide accurate and forthright information and he repeatedly failed to do so.”

Metro and the union agree that Haile was not responsible for the death and injuries that occurred during that incident; the tunnel fan he was tasked with inspecting had operated properly during the smoke incident and only burned out once all the passengers were evacuated from the tunnel. Also, other mechanics had been responsible for conducting the inspection scheduled for December 2014.

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In an interview with investigators after the L’Enfant Plaza incident, Haile indicated that he had not been able to properly conduct the November 2014 inspection because staff in Metro’s rail operations command center failed to identify the correct fan and turn it on remotely. He moved on to inspect the next fan, and did not return later.

Haile later told officials that he had left a blank spot on his inspection report, indicating that the particular fan in question had not been properly scrutinized. He testified that in the hours after the L’Enfant Plaza incident — before it became apparent what had gone wrong — his supervisors had pressured him to fill in the blank spot. Supervisors are responsible for ensuring that employees completely fill out their inspection reports.

“They trick us. . . . They call us to fill out this paper to cover themselves,” Haile testified to the arbitrators, recalling his dialogue with the supervisor. “When we came from the field . . . [I said,] I can’t remember all this. . . . We don’t know this, I just guessing. But we knew right away after we left there was an accident. The lead man and the supervisor, to cover themselves, they forced us to put it.”

Haile was fired in February 2015; in April, an arbitration board disagreed with that decision, arguing that a lighter punishment would be adequate.

“The grievant’s misconduct was serious,” wrote arbitrator Ezio E. Borchini in that decision. “However, in light of all of the evidence, it was not so serious as to be disruptive of the employment relationship. The penalty must be rehabilitative, rather than punitive.”

Last month, when the union filed its lawsuit, Metro officials vowed to put up a fight. In this new filing, the agency asserts that it would be putting passengers at risk if it allowed Haile to resume working at Metro.

“Requiring WMATA to reinstate this employee, who has on repeated occasions falsely documented and stated that he completed assigned work on critical safety equipment when in fact he had not, would compromise WMATA’s ability to comply with these applicable safety laws and otherwise protect the safety of its transit riders, employees, and the general public,” Metro wrote.

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ATU Local 689 spokesman David Stephen declined to comment on Metro’s counterclaim, other than to affirm that the union continues to believe that arbitrators’ ruling was justified.

“We are confident the courts will uphold the legally binding arbitration decision,” Stephen said.

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