Fired employee suing county

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By Carol A. Clark

Diana Stepan, who was terminated from her $146,000-a-year job as an assistant county administrator Monday, has retained trial lawyer Sam Bregman of Bregman & Loman, PC in Albuquerque to represent her in a lawsuit against Los Alamos County.

Stepan has referred all media inquiries surrounding the suit to Bregman.

Bregman said he has been monitoring for months the developments in the investigation of complaints Stepan lodged against her former boss, County Administrator Tony Mortillaro and others — many of which dated back several years. Mortillaro was terminated by county council in December even though there was no direct finding of wrongdoing on his part.

“We will file the suit in federal court as soon as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) completes its investigation of Los Alamos County,” Bregman said.

He filed an initial EEOC complaint against the county on Stepan’s behalf “a couple of months ago” and filed an amendment to that complaint following her termination on Monday.

“We are going forward with all necessary action to make this right,” Bregman. “The county made a terrible decision in terminating Ms. Stepan and unfortunately they are going to have to use taxpayer dollars to make this right for what I believe will be a substantial award for the misconduct of the officials at the county.”

Stepan’s suit will include claims of retaliation, wrongful termination and whistleblower, he said.

Acting County Administrator Randy Autio fired Stepan, saying it was in the best interest of the county. She was an “at will” employee who could be terminated with or without cause.

From September until Monday, Stepan was on administrative leave and continued to receive her salary while the investigation into her complaints was conducted by an outside firm. Unlike Mortillaro, she did not have an employment contract and did not receive a severance package.

Even though New Mexico is an employment at will state, Bregman’s law firm Web site states that employees still have protection against being fired illegally or as a result of reporting a claim against their employer — otherwise called whistleblowing.

“They can cite nothing Ms. Stepan did wrong, she has provided years of dedicated service to the county yet they terminated her,” Bregman said. “If complaining to supervisors about bad conduct that is going on is a reason to be fired then they certainly are stifling their employees …”

Autio was named acting county administrator following Mortillaro’s termination. He is the former Los Alamos county attorney who will return to that position, unless appointed county administrator permanently by county council.

“We take all litigation that’s filed against the county very seriously and of course we aren’t retaliating in any fashion in the action I just took regarding Ms. Stepan,” Autio said. “We’ll take a look at the suit filed and defend against it.”  

The amount of monetary damages will not be stipulated in the suit, Bregman said.

“We are leaving that up to a jury and I do believe it will be substantial,” he said.

Bregman has developed extensive trial experience in both civil and criminal settings, having served as an assistant district attorney for the state of New Mexico from 1994 through 1997 and having previously operated a private litigation practice. Bregman also served on the Albuquerque City Council from 1995 until 1999 and was New Mexico’s deputy state auditor. He holds a B.A. in economics from the University of New Mexico and a J.D. from the UNM School of Law.


Put your big girl panties on, Howdy-Doody. (Look on the bright side, unemployment benefits have been extended for 99 weeks.)