BIG STONE GAP, Va. -- Four laid-off Virginia coal miners are suing Justice Energy, claiming the West Virginia-based company violated federal law when it let some 150 workers go without adequate notice.
The workers sued in U.S. District Court in Virginia last week over layoffs at mining operations in Wise County.
The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) requires companies with at least 100 employees to give 60 days' notice of plant closings and mass layoffs. But the lawsuit claims WARN notices weren't sent, and rapid-response teams weren't dispatched as required to assist displaced workers.
"They had a meeting at Mountain Empire Community College ... where 15 people were there to talk to three coal miners," attorney Hugh O'Donnell told Kentucky's Harlan Daily Enterprise.
O'Donnell says those workers only attended because he informed them about the meeting.
"Two of the miners there were in their 50s," he said, "and for people who are in their 50s who have worked all their lives in mining be told you can go to school and learn a new trade, it was truly a surreal kind of thing."
Justice Energy's attorney is out of town until Monday, and other officials didn't immediately comment Thursday.
O'Donnell says his clients are seeking 60 days' pay in compensation and other unspecified damages. Some workers had more than 30 years in the mines.
The complaint says Justice Energy operates more than four facilities in Wise County using common employees, management and equipment, so they qualify as a "single unit" under the WARN Act.
Justice Energy is owned by the family of West Virginia billionaire Jim Justice, who owns The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs. Worth an estimated $1.7 billion, Justice ranks No. 292 on a list of wealthiest Americans by Forbes magazine, which estimates that his personal wealth has grown by $500 million in the last year.
But his coal operations in Appalachia are struggling, and business owners have filed at least nine lawsuits since late 2011 claiming they are not being paid for work at Justice mines. Still others say they are owed money but haven't yet sued.
Justice has acknowledged his companies have some debts but said they are emblematic of the coal industry's wider struggles -- environmental regulations, sluggish global markets and competition from cheap natural gas, among other things.
The federal government estimates coal production in central Appalachia is expected to tumble from 235 million tons mined in 2008 to about 139 million tons by 2015, a decline of more than 40 percent.