Phila. police officer wins $75,000 judgment in whistle-blower suit

Posted: March 16, 2014

A Philadelphia judge has awarded $75,000 in damages to a city police officer who sued claiming superiors retaliated against him after he complained of shoddy asbestos removal at the Police Athletic League center he managed.

Thursday's award by Common Pleas Court Judge John Milton Younge followed a Feb. 27 verdict by a trial jury in the whistle-blower suit by Officer Paul Zenak against the Police Department and city.

Younge ordered that Zenak, 44, a 23-year veteran officer, be returned to his job as manager of the PAL center at Wissinoming United Methodist Church, 4419 Comly St., and be reimbursed $75,000 for 271.5 days of leave he used after suing and $411 in medical expenses.

Younge awarded a total of $195,184 in fees and costs to Zenak's lawyers at the Center City firm Layser & Freiwald P.C.

"We consider this a real vindication for him," said lawyer Aaron J. Freiwald.

City Solicitor Shelley Smith said her office would appeal.

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

The city's 26 PAL centers are administered through a nonprofit that raises funds and with taxpayer support. The centers are operated as a unit of the Police Department with officers assigned as on-site managers.

Zenak, married and the father of four, had managed the PAL center 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 did homework. Asbestos, a fireproof fibrous mineral long used as an insulator in buildings, can cause cancer and other 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, and he got the first of several reprimands.

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

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

Freiwald earlier reached a confidential settlements with the church and PAL and Bailey was dismissed from the suit before trial.

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

215-854-2985 @joeslobo

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