Former foreman sues Murray Energy over firing

A former Murray Energy preparation plant foreman is suing the company, alleging she was fired because she did not make campaign contributions to Murray CEO Bob Murray’s preferred political candidates, according to a legal complaint filed in Monongalia County Circuit Court.

Jean F. Cochenour also alleges that her firing from Murray Energy discriminated against her because of her gender. She was the company’s only female preparation plant foreman, the legal complaint states.

Murray Energy said Cochenour’s lawsuit “is wholly without merit, and we will vigorously defend against her frivolous claims.”

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 4, seeks back pay, reinstatement to her position and legal fees and costs, as well as damages for “indignity, emotional distress, embarrassment and mental anguish in an amount to be determined by a jury.”

According to the legal complaint, Cochenour was employed as a shift foreman at the preparation plant at Murray Energy’s Marion County Mine. The operation was previously called the Loveridge Mine and was among the properties Ohio-based Murray Energy bought from CONSOL Energy in late 2013.

The lawsuit states that Cochenour’s duties did not change when Murray bought the mine and that she was “satisfactorily performing her duties as a prep plant shift foreman.”

During her time working for Murray, and continuing after she was fired, Cochenour received written requests from CEO Bob Murray to contribute to certain political candidates, the lawsuit says. The letters included the names of specific candidates and a request from Murray that Cochenour contribute a specific amount to each candidate.

“Not only did Mr. Murray name candidates and specify the amount to be contributed to each candidate, but he also required that the political contributions be returned directly to him in a self-addressed envelope that he enclosed with each of his letters to her,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that Murray kept track of who among his employees made the requested political contributions. It says that Cochenour declined to make the requested contributions.

In early May 2014, on her day off, Cochenour received a phone call at home at about 9:30 a.m. advising her that she and other prep plant foremen were ordered to meet individually with Bob Murray at his office in St. Clairsville, Ohio, the lawsuit states.

“Ms. Cochenour drove to St. Clairsville to meet with Mr. Murray,” the lawsuit says. The suit alleges that, at this meeting, Cochenour was fired “even though she had done nothing wrong in her work.”

In a second statement issued Wednesday morning, Murray Energy alleged that Cochenour and her attorney, Al Karlin of Morgantown, “filed this baseless lawsuit in an attempt to extort money” from the company. “Their statements are blatantly false and totally concocted.

“Indeed, Ms. Cochenour was fired because she failed to perform her job adequately,” Murray Energy said in Wednesday’s statement. “Undoubtedly, her lack of management cost Murray Energy Corporation hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Their false allegations about Mr. Murray’s personal fundraisers, which have nothing to do with Murray Energy, are totally fabricated, as he deliberately never knows who gives to his fundraisers and who does not, as Mr. Murray has repeatedly stated,” the statement said. “These personal fundraisers are merely an attempt to support the coal industry and to save the jobs in it from the ongoing destruction of them.”

Jane Peak, another of Cochenour’s lawyers, said Wednesday, “We disagree with Mr. Murray’s statements, and our complaint speaks for itself.”

The lawsuit alleges that Murray’s “pretextual” reason for firing Cochenour was that he claimed she allowed hourly employees to work overtime on a Saturday, contrary to his directive. The suit alleges, though, that Cochenour was never told not to allow overtime work on a Saturday, that hourly employees were routinely scheduled for mandatory overtime on Saturdays at the prep plant and that Cochenour was not even in charge of the schedule for hourly employees at the prep plant.

The lawsuit alleges that Murray Energy singled out Cochenour and two male shift foremen for termination even though the company knew that these foremen were not responsible for the overtime schedule that was the “purported reason” for the terminations. One of the male foremen was eventually rehired, but the other was not, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges that, prior to the firings, Bob Murray “was concerned that too many of his management employees were not contributing to Mr. Murray’s political candidates of choice.” The suit alleges that Cochenour was fired “because of an animus against her as the only female foreman at the mine and/or because of her failure to donate to the candidates of Mr. Murray’s choice.”

“By firing foremen in the unlawful manner in which he fired Ms. Cochenour, Mr. Murray knows and understands that he can and does create a concern among the remaining foremen that, if they fail to contribute to his candidates, they may also lose their jobs,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit says that Cochenour did not keep copies of political letters she received from Murray prior to her termination. It says she kept a letter she received after her termination, and a copy of that letter is attached to the lawsuit.

In that May 29, 2014, letter, Bob Murray wrote, “The coal industry and our jobs are being destroyed by President Barack Obama, his appointed bureaucrats, and his political supporters in the U.S. House and Senate. Our only hope to stop them is by electing friends of coal and our families and by wresting control of the U.S. Senate from these enemies of coal, maintaining our current U.S. House majority, and electing strong, effective state-level leadership.”

The letter asked for $200 contributions each for four Republican U.S. Senate candidates, Scott Brown in New Hampshire, Edward Gillespie in Virginia, Terri Land in Michigan, and Mike McFadden in Minnesota. The letter noted that a “huge fundraising event” was being planned in June in Harrisburg, Illinois, and asked that contributions be submitted to Murray in time for that event.

The letter adds, “If you cannot give the requested amount, contribute what you can and join our evening, even if you cannot give at all.”

“The letters Ms. Cochenour received are not unique,” the lawsuit alleges. “On information and belief, Mr. Murray expects his management employees to support his personal political choices and he communicates his expectations to them by sending them letters such as the ones Ms. Cochenour received, by reminding them of his political preferences and of the importance of supporting those preferences in management meetings, and by telling those who attend the Murray defendants’ ‘college’ for managers that the managers are expected to voluntarily contribute 1 percent of their salary to Mr. Murray’s political action committee.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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