OSHA Obtains Civil Contempt Order, Alleging ‘Serial’ Violator Refuses To Pay Fines

OSHA has successfully pursued a civil contempt order against a small Maine construction employer over his alleged refusal to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in OSH Act fines, as the agency comes under pressure to take the toughest enforcement actions possible against what safety and health activists regard as bad actors — but the owner accuses OSHA of simply continually harassing him.

Agency officials last month widely publicized a U.S. Court of Appeals order against businessman Stephen Lessard, whom the agency says has repeatedly refused to pay $405,000 in fines and interest stemming from alleged safety violations at his companies Lessard Roofing and Siding Inc. and Lessard Brothers Construction Inc., between 2000 and 2011. OSHA cited the employers 11 times at 11 different work sites in Maine over that period.

Since then Lessard has refused to pay the fines and accruing interest, even after the Labor Department obtained an order in U.S. District Court for the District of Maine in December 2011.

DOL asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston in February to hold Stephen Lessard in civil contempt for defying the 2011 order. The court of appeals entered a judgment finding Lessard in civil contempt of the 2011 judgment, ordering him to submit proof of correction for the cited hazards and pay $405,485 plus interest and fees to OSHA within 20 days.

If not he could face additional court sanctions, including prison. Lessard, however, maintains that he is not ignoring the court orders but has not been able to pay the fines.

OSHA’s New England regional administrator, Kim Stille, emphasized in an Aug. 24 news brief the legal ramifications of ignoring OSHA fines. “It’s critically important that employers recognize their obligation to take all appropriate steps to ensure the safety and health of their workers,” Stille said. “The refusal to do so places their employees’ lives and well-being at risk and the employers themselves in legal jeopardy.”

The region’s Labor solicitor, Michael Felsen, alleged that Lessard repeatedly flouted his obligations and violated standing court orders, and that the Labor Department responded by seeking, and obtaining, a contempt finding by the court of appeals that requires him to pay the fines he owes and comply with his safety and health responsibilities. “If he fails to take this finding seriously, the court has made clear he could find himself in jail until he does.”

Lessard, reached at a number for his business, told Inside OSHA Online he has no direct employees and is currently using a subcontractor to complete jobs, and he lacked the funds to pay the fines and interest. At the same time OSHA is staying on top of his every move, he contended.

OSHA in January cited Lessard for alleged egregious willful, repeated and serious violations for fall-related hazards and proposed fines of $287,000. “They’re harassing the hell out of me right now,” he said. “A lot of it’s unfounded. I’ve never had a fall off a roof, ever.”

Lessard, without specifically indicating how he would resolve the fines and contempt order, says OSHA earlier tried to impose an agreement on him that included the possibility of willful liability in future inspections, even though inspectors finding alleged violations was a near certainty. “Part of my complaint is that they want an agreement with me which I refuse to sign,” he said. “They’ve never come to a job and not found something.” — Christopher Cole (ccole@iwpnews.com)