Amazon Is Sued for Terminating Critic of Online Pesticide Sales

A former Inc. attorney alleges in a lawsuit that he was let go for speaking up about what he says were illegal online sales of restricted pesticides.

The wrongful termination complaint, filed in June, cites tensions within the e-commerce giant’s legal team over sales of products that the former employee alleges violated federal and state laws. Amazon has long been criticized for failing to halt sales of unsafe products until it has received complaints.

John Evans, a former judge advocate with the U.S. Coast Guard, started working as a lawyer for Amazon in 2018. His job was to make sure the consumer team selling lawn and garden supplies and other products complied with state and federal laws. In the past five years, long before Evans was hired, the Environmental Protection Agency has punished Amazon for violating rules governing the sale of pesticides.

Evans says in the complaint that he repeatedly spoke up about the company’s failure to prevent the illegal sales and that his suggestions to solve the problem were rejected. Evans said he aired the concerns in weekly meetings with his supervisor, Laurie Sakulich, and ultimately transferred to another team in 2019 because he was uncomfortable with his role.

“On numerous occasions, Mr. Evans raised his concerns with Amazon selling and distributing these illegal products to his superiors,” according to the complaint. “When Mr. Evans stated that he was not willing to handle legal and regulatory compliance matters in which Amazon was knowingly violating the law, Mr. Evans was told by his supervisor that he was a ‘terrible fit’ for Amazon.”

In an emailed statement, an Amazon spokesperson said Evans was terminated in December “after engaging in threatening behavior in the workplace -- not for raising a compliance concern” and that he hadn’t worked in a compliance role for more than a year. In the lawsuit, Evans denies threatening his supervisor, calling the allegation false.

The 17-page complaint paints a picture of internal debates about regulatory issues. Evans alleges that proposals to prevent Amazon from breaking the law were routinely dismissed because they could have hurt sales or create “friction” for merchants.

Amazon’s web store features hundreds of millions products sold by different parties. That structure makes inventory abundant for Amazon shoppers, but it is also unwieldy and difficult for the company to police. Beyond pesticides, Amazon’s marketplace can be cluttered with counterfeits or products making unsubstantiated claims about fighting Covid-19.

In the complaint, Evans alleges that Amazon was “reactionary” and took action only after regulators pointed out violations rather than being proactive to prevent the problems to begin with.

“Product compliance is a top priority at Amazon, and we require third-party sellers comply with relevant laws and regulations when listing items for sale in our store,” the spokesperson said. “We have proactive measures in place to prevent suspicious or prohibited products from being listed, and we continuously monitor the products sold in our stores.”

Thanks to such efforts, she said, the company last year blocked more than 2.5 million suspected “bad actor accounts” and more than 6 billion suspected “bad listings” from appearing on the site.

Federal regulators say the sale of unregistered, misbranded or restricted-use pesticides and other products can endanger the public, putting toxic chemicals such as paint strippers in the hands of people who aren’t trained to properly dispense them.

Since the EPA stepped up enforcement of unregistered pesticide sales about five years ago, Amazon has received four stop-sale orders. The most recent order last month came as the EPA seeks to thwart the sale of unregistered disinfectants marketed as killing the coronavirus.

The company has also received more than a dozen advisory notices since February 2018 about potential violations. To settle almost 4,000 alleged violations of illegally distributing unregistered and misbranded pesticide products, two years ago Amazon agreed to pay $1.2 million, step up product screening and establish a training program for pesticide sellers.

“Amazon continues this reactive approach of seeing if they get caught or at least engaging in willful ignorance, both when Amazon itself is selling the product and when a third party is selling the product on the Amazon platform,” the lawsuit states.

Evans, who earned $152,000 a year when he was hired, is seeking back pay and an unspecified amount for other damages.

The case is Evans v Services LLC, 20-2-10316, King County Superior Court.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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