Lawsuit says BHP retaliated against ex-employee

James Fenton

FARMINGTON — A recently filed lawsuit alleges BHP Billiton officials ordered the destruction of documents related to the sale of Navajo Mine in an effort to mislead the Navajo Nation and tribal entity Navajo Transitional Energy Co.


Former BHP Billiton employee Patty Yazzie is suing the coal company, citing harassment and retaliation that resulted in her firing, according to court documents. Her attorney, David R. Jordan, filed the lawsuit  — which seeks damages including loss of pay and emotional and physical harm — on Dec. 22 in the Eleventh Judicial District Court in Aztec.

Jordan could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Yazzie claims the coal company, which sold Navajo Mine to NTEC for $85 million in December 2013, fired her for refusing to destroy documents related to the mine sale.

The surface mine, located near Fruitland, employs about 450 workers and is the sole supplier of coal to nearby Four Corners Power Plant.

BHP Billiton spokesman Dan Ware said in a statement on Monday that although the company has not been officially served with documents in the lawsuit, BHP denies any wrongdoing.

"Following the termination, the employee made numerous allegations relating to the termination, which were investigated by the New Mexico Human Rights Bureau and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission," Ware said in the statement.

Ware added that in June, the human rights bureau "found there was not probable cause to believe that the company had acted wrongfully."

And in July, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also dismissed the complaint, adopting the human rights bureau’s findings, Ware said.

In her lawsuit, Yazzie alleges she was asked to destroy documents housed in the BHP environmental quality department's library that included archaeological, historical and financial records, leases, royalties, agreements, audits, negotiations, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement reclamation and permitting records, environmental impact statements, land agreements with the Ute Mountain tribe for the now shuttered La Plata Mine and ongoing litigation documents.

In the lawsuit, Yazzie claims "the attempt to destroy the records was a fraudulent attempt to mislead the Navajo Nation and its entity, NTEC, in a purchase transaction for Navajo Mine."

Those records were "supporting documentation that outlined historical information and data that (NTEC) ... would need when they became new owners (of Navajo Mine)," the lawsuit states.

Yazzie's lawsuit does not make clear whether or not the records were ultimately destroyed.

Yazzie started with BHP in 2000 as a clerk in the engineering department, working in "various administrative positions"  for the company's two coal operations, San Juan Coal Company and Navajo Mine, according to the lawsuit.

By 2013, she was a document control administrator in the engineering department at San Juan Coal Company. By May of that year, she claims she was instructed by Steve Flammang, the company's engineering manager, to destroy company records, according to the lawsuit.

Yazzie claims she refused to do that and harassment by Flammang ensued, leading to her dismissal for "failure to follow instructions and performance issues" in April 2014, according to the lawsuit.

"After (Yazzie) refused, Flammang became upset. He raised his voice to the point of yelling, he leaned forward, made forceful hand gestures and his face was red," Yazzie's lawsuit states.

Yazzie's lawsuit also demands she be reinstated to her position at BHP.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.