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Jury awards officer who claimed retaliation over asbestos complaint

Officer sued the city, claiming that his superiors retaliated against him when he complained of shoddy asbestos removal at a Police Athletic League center

By Joseph A. Slobodzian
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA  A Philadelphia jury has found in favor of a police officer who sued the city, claiming that his superiors retaliated against him when he complained of shoddy asbestos removal at a Police Athletic League center he managed.

The 12-member Common Pleas Court jury reached its unanimous verdict Thursday in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by Officer Paul Zenak against the Police Department and city.

Zenak's lawyer, Aaron J. Freiwald, said Monday that the jury determined that Zenak, 44, a 23-year veteran, should be returned as manager of the PAL center at Wissinoming United Methodist Church, reimbursed for 16 months of paid leave he used since filing suit, and reimbursed for medical and legal costs.

On March 13, the parties will go before Judge John Milton Younge, who will decide Zenak's monetary damages.

City Solicitor Shelley Smith said "the city has a number of potential appellate issues" and she is considering an appeal.

In May 2012, Zenak sued under the state's "whistle-blower" law, naming the city, the police, the PAL, the church, and J. Bailey Builders, the New Jersey-based contractor renovating the church basement in 2011.

Freiwald said the city's PAL centers were administered through a nonprofit that raises funds and also gets taxpayer support from the city. The centers are operated as a unit of the Police Department with officers assigned as on-site managers.

According to the Police Department, the PAL, since its creation in 1947, has established 26 centers that serve thousands of young people in sports and other programs.

Zenak, married and the father of four, had managed the PAL center at the church at 4419 Comly St. since 2008. In 2011, the contractor doing renovations told him there was exposed asbestos wrapping 60 feet of pipe hanging in the room where children attending the center did homework.

Asbestos, a fireproof fibrous mineral long used as an insulator in construction, can cause cancer and lung diseases if inhaled.
Several weeks later, after Zenak found the pipe insulation gone and a layer of dust everywhere, he complained to his superiors. He subsequently got the first of several reprimands  the first in his career.

Freiwald said Zenak went on leave after filing the suit, complaining that his asthma had worsened and that he suffered stress so bad that he once went to an emergency room, fearing he was having a heart attack.

In addition to his own health, Zenak was worried about the potential danger for children at the church PAL center, Friewald said.

Although PAL officials assured Zenak that tests showed no evidence of airborne asbestos particles, Freiwald said the testing was done long after removal.

"By that point, everything had settled," Freiwald added.

Freiwald said he reached confidential settlements with the church and the PAL organization before last week's trial. Bailey was dismissed from the suit before trial.

Pending is a separate civil suit seeking medical monitoring for an estimated 100 children who might have been exposed to asbestos attending programs at the Wissinoming PAL center.

Copyright 2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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