Jury sides with ex-LANL official who was forced to quit

John J. Tapia embraces his wife, Karen Tapia, in court Friday after a jury decided his breach of contract case against Los Alamos National Security LLC in his favor and awarded him $735,000 in damages. Phaedra Haywood/The New Mexican

A Santa Fe jury on Friday awarded about $735,000 to a former Los Alamos National Laboratory senior manager who was forced to resign when his outside position on a regional electric co-op’s board of trustees thrust him into the center of a public controversy.

John J. Tapia filed the breach of contract case in 2016 against Los Alamos National Security LLC, which was managing the laboratory when Tapia was forced out after decades of employment.

“The motive for firing Mr. Tapia was about public relations,” Aaron Wolf, one of Tapia’s attorneys, told jurors during closing arguments Friday. “The way they treated him can be described in one three-syllable word, and the first two syllables are ‘chicken.’ ”

Representatives of the lab said Tapia had violated policies by using his work computer to do work for the Jemez Mountains Electric Co-op on company time and directed a subordinate to do the same.

In reality, Wolf said, lab managers were worried that locally publicized fraud allegations involving the electric co-op board would reflect poorly on them and hurt their consortium’s chances of retaining a U.S. Department of Energy contract to operate the laboratory. Consequently, Wolf said, they pushed Tapia out, needlessly destroying a career he had spent his life building.

“All of this was about: How does it look to the outside world?” Wolf told the jury. “How does it look to the readers of the Rio Grande Sun? How does it look to our new employers?”

Tapia came under scrutiny in December 2015 when a member of the electric co-op board accused Tapia and other board members of fraud. Accountants ultimately determined board members had made mistakes that did not rise to the level of fraud.

Tapia, who the lab paid about $190,000 a year to oversee more than $1 billion worth of government-owned equipment, claimed in his lawsuit that the company seized on his incidental use of his work computer as an excuse to fire him rather than give him progressive discipline or follow other employment procedures.

The management company maintained it simply couldn’t allow Tapia, who had dozens of employees under him, to make personal use of government resources or set a poor example for his subordinates.

“Mr. Tapia fired himself,” the lab’s attorney, Ellen S. Casey, told jurors at the conclusion of a weeklong trial. “He took his excellent opportunity that he worked hard for and he threw it away. Because he wanted to pursue a political career? I don’t know why. But that’s not our fault and we should not be responsible for it.”

But 11 of the 12 jurors — verdicts in civil cases require a consensus of at least 10 jurors — didn’t see it that way.

After deliberating for about five hours, the jurors found in Tapia’s favor in every aspect of the case they were asked to decide.

Yes, Tapia had an implied contract with lab, jurors concluded. Yes, the company breached the contract. Yes, the company acted in bad faith, and, yes, those actions caused Tapia damages.

More than $600,000 of the money jurors award Tapia was to compensate him for lost wages. The remainder of about $132,000 was to compensate him for lost benefits.

An emotional Tapia embraced his wife and legal team following the reading of the verdict.

“It’s been a long road,” he said. “It’s been a tough road. It’s been hard on my family and friends. I just want to be with my wife and two daughters.”

Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman Kevin Roark said lab managers respect the jury’s decision even though they don’t agree with it and will “definitely consider an appeal.”