SANTA FE – A Santa Fe jury has awarded $1 million plus $1 to a Los Alamos National Laboratory employee whose 2010 lawsuit alleged that a supervisor made comments about using a gun to settle office work issues.
In one instance, the lawsuit alleged, the Los Alamos police and the lab’s own SWAT team responded after the supervisor got upset about a work plan, “went ballistic” and said he was going to “bring in a gun and take care of it himself.”
Marlayne Mahar also contended in the suit that her problems at LANL started after she and her group leader reported nuclear materials inventory problems at the lab’s plutonium processing facility.
The lab disputed her allegations and many of the specifics of her suit’s account of the incidents that led to the litigation.
After a 3 1/2-day trial before District Judge Sarah Singleton, the jury early this week awarded Mahar $1 million in punitive damages and another $1 in nominal damages.
The jury ruled against Los Alamos National Security LLC, the partnership that runs the lab, on counts of breach of LANL’s workplace violence policy, breach of contract and acting in bad faith.
Two individual lab officials, Randy Fraser and Joel Williams, originally were named as defendants in the suit but were dismissed as the litigation proceeded.
Mahar, a lab employee since 1999 who still works there, had no comment. Her lawyer, Tim Butler of Santa Fe, said the jurors listened to evidence from both sides, made the award in Mahar’s favor and that he and Mahar “respect their decision.”
A LANL spokeswoman provided a statement that the lab intends “to file a post-trial motion to challenge the results” of the trial.
Mahar’s suit said she and her group leader raised concerns about “inventory reconciliation issues” at the plutonium processing facility at the lab’s Technical Area 55 in December 2008, which “brought a lot of attention to the Lab as well as the U.S. Department of Energy.” Mahar at the time was deputy group leader for Nuclear Material Facility Support, supervising 13 people.
The lab, in February 2009, did report unreconciled inventory and accounting for sensitive materials at TA 55, but said nothing was missing and there was no risk to the public, according to a Journal report at the time.
After DOE brought in a team to review the situation, Mahar and the group leader were demoted and a new group leader – Randy Fraser – was hired from the Pantex nuclear weapons plant in Amarillo, Texas, the suit says.
Fraser was immediately abusive toward Mahar, and he was motivated by the fact that she reported the nuclear materials inventory problems and “DOE had threatened to shut down LANL based on what had been discovered and reported by Mahar,” the suit alleges.
In May 2009, Fraser became angry about a file managed by another employee that was part of a performance-based incentive plan Mahar was working on, the suit states. Referring to the other worker, Fraser said, “It’s a good thing guns are not allowed at work” and continued, “You know that story about the employee stands up and says the wrong thing and his boss takes out a gun and shoots him!,” according to Mahar’s suit. When Mahar looked concerned, Fraser said his comments were just a joke.
Mahar made an appointment with the lab’s Ombudsman Office to talk about Fraser. Two days later, a woman who was one Mahar’s team members told Mahar she’d been berated by Fraser over problems with the performance-based incentive plan and that he “went ballistic and in the end told her he was going to `bring in a gun and take care of it himself.’”
The woman said she felt threatened and made a report to the Los Alamos police. That’s when police and the lab SWAT team responded, according to the suit. The lab’s response to the suit in 2010 denied that account.
Fraser denied making the gun statement, the suit says. Security personnel told the woman who reported the alleged threat to “take a deep breath and report back to work,” the lawsuit says.
After this incident, Williams – the lab’s Safeguards Division leader – moved the offices of Mahar and the other woman, but they were still near Fraser and Williams also wanted Mahar to still report to Fraser, the suit maintains. LANS also later denied a request for the two women to be put on leave “until things were resolved,” the lawsuit states.
Eventually the lab’s human resources operation closed an investigation of the allegations about Fraser, saying his alleged statements couldn’t be corroborated. Both Fraser and Williams still work at the lab.
After the investigation, Mahar needed treatment from a psychologist and took leave for about two months under the Family Medical Leave Act. Upon her return, she was given the option of working for Fraser again or taking another job. She objected to working for Fraser and was “relocated” to another area performing “ministerial clerical work far below her previous job scope,” the suit states.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal