Former employee files suit against county

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By Randi Pierce | Staff Writer

On Monday, a lawsuit was filed by a former Archuleta County employee who alleges that the county unlawfully withheld a COVID-related bonus from her and other employees and retaliated against her.

The civil complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado Monday by law firm Albrechta and Albrechta LLC on behalf of Lacy Brown. It is against the “Archuleta County, Board of County Commissioners,” as well as commissioners Warren Brown and Ronnie Maez as individuals.

The complaint explains that Lacy Brown was employed by the county from November 2011 until Oct. 24, 2021, with her final job position being casework supervisor in the Department of Human Services.

The complaint lists two components.

“The first consists of Ms. Brown’s individual claims against the County and Defendants for against [sic] Ms. Brown for engaging in protected activity of reporting sexual harassment to the County and for complaining about the unlawful requirements to earn a bonus,” the complaint reads. “The second is a collective and class action instituted by Plaintiff because of Defendants’ policy and practice of not paying certain county employees a $2,000.00 bonus, including Plaintiff, who took leave during the COVID pandemic that was mandated by County policy and protected by federal law.”

The complaint and an Aug. 30 press release from Albrechta and Albrechta explain that, in late 2021, the Archuleta County commissioners opted to issue a $2,000 bonus to all employees who were employed during the COVID-19 pandemic “to thank them for their services,” but withheld that bonus from any employee who took any leave related to COVID.

The complaint cites minutes from the commissioners’ Sept. 7 meeting at which they voted for the bonuses, with Warren Brown and Maez voting in favor and Commissioner Alvin Schaaf voting against it.

Lacy Brown, the complaint and press release explain, took 6.5 hours of leave when she was exhibiting COVID symptoms, pursuant to the county’s policies, but that she “never tested positive and returned to work as quickly as she could.”

The suit alleges that, by doing so, the county violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Colorado Wage Claim Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Emergency Family Medical Leave Act.

“Upon learning she would not receive the bonus, Ms. Brown went to her supervisor who directed her to speak with the County Manager and Commissioners since they were responsible for the decision,” the press release states. 

On Sept. 15, according to the complaint, Lacy Brown emailed the Department of Human Resources (HR) representative asking to meet about the bonus, and also emailed others, including elected officials and the county administrator, asking them to reconsider giving her the bonus since she took leave per the county’s policies.

The complaint alleges that the county administrator at the time, Scott Wall, who is not named as a party to the suit, then emailed Lacy Brown’s supervisor stating that her email was inappropriate and the supervisor should “handle it.”

The complaint further explains that the supervisor called Wall “to learn how he was supposed to handle it and, during the call, Lacy Brown walked by her supervisor’s office and entered to listen to the rest of the call after hearing her name.

“During this call Mr. Wall stated that he would never meet with Ms. Brown alone because she had a bad reputation around town. He also stated that if he knew she was so unprofessional that he would never have approved her raise the previous year,” the complaint reads.

The complaint further alleges Wall made offensive comments about a homosexual man.

On the afternoon of Sept. 15, the complaint notes, Lacy Brown received an email back from HR indicating the county had already voted on and approved the bonus and amendments to the requirements to receive the payments were not expected.

The complaint states that Lacy Brown’s supervisor contacted HR on Sept. 16 stating that Lacy Brown intended to file a complaint alleging sexual harassment by Wall, and Lacy Brown reported to HR that Wall “created a hostile work environment.”

The complaint alleges that Brown and her supervisor were encouraged by HR to “wait a couple days to cool down” and they met with HR later that morning.

“On September 17, 2021, the County accepted Mr. Wall’s voluntary resignation, which included a generous payout of his contract,” the complaint reads. 

It continues that, on Sept. 21, Lacy Brown emailed HR her formal written complaint against Wall and was told that nothing further would be done because Wall had already resigned, “leaving nothing for the County to address.”

However, the complaint indicates, on Oct. 11, the Mountain States Employers Council began an internal investigation, “supposedly into the complaints about Mr. Wall.”

“After she reported the harassment, the County began an investigation and quickly flipped the script on Ms. Brown and began investigating her instead,” the press release summarizes, with the complaint stating, “Plaintiff felt like the County was out to get her. … She felt as though all of this stemmed from her initial email to the County challenging the terms of the COVID Bonus and because she was responsible for the resignation of their County Administrator.”

It continues to explain that a complaint was filed against Lacy Brown “which allowed the investigation to be re-directed from Mr. Wall’s conduct to Plaintiff’s alleged conduct was coerced, or at least encouraged, to make the complaint against Plaintiff by an agent or employee of the County.”

Lacy Brown submitted a voluntary resignation on Oct. 18, 2021, according to the complaint, with her last day of work scheduled to be Oct. 29, 2021.

It notes that both Lacy Brown and the supervisor, who submitted complaints against Wall, were terminated after submitting voluntary resignations, with Lacy Brown’s employment terminated on Oct. 24, 2021, “for her alleged conduct during a group building exercise with a skeleton made out of cookies.”

The termination notice, the complaint alleges, notified Lacy Brown that her employment status would be classified as terminated.

The complaint alleges Lacy Brown was fired again on Oct. 29, 2021, in response to an email she sent on her last day of work.

The complaint indicates the course of events was retaliation against her, “and others similarly situated,” for taking leave and retaliated against her for submitting written and oral complaints about the alleged sexual harassment.

The complaint seeks, among other things, “Compensation for the loss of all the income, benefits, and privileges incurred from on or about October 24, 2021, through the date of reinstatement or trial, as well as reasonable front pay;” other damages, including compensation for damage to Brown’s reputation and emotional distress; and a jury trial.

On the topic of a class-action suit, the complaint notes that the class Lacy Brown seeks to represent and send “opt-in” notices to is persons, male and female, who were employed by Archuleta County from on or before March 16, 2020, until on or after Sept. 7, 2021, who were denied the bonus issued by the county because they took leave pursuant to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

“Ms. Brown is standing up for her own rights after being terminated for reporting harassment in the workplace. She is also leading the charge for any employee who was denied the County-wide bonus simply because they were forced to take leave pursuant to the County’s own policies during a global pandemic,” attorney David Albrechta states via the press release.

Archuleta County Attorney Todd Weaver explained Tuesday he was unable to comment on the case because the county had not yet been served. 

He confirmed Wednesday via email the county still had not been served, but indicated that, once served, the county intends “to submit the claim to its insurance carrier for a determination of coverage and the possible retention of outside counsel.”

Wall did not return a message seeking comment on the matter by press time Wednesday.

randi@pagosasun.com