A scientist who was fired from the Austin Police Department's crime lab last year has filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin and Police Chief Art Acevedo, saying police and city officials spread false information about her that damaged her reputation.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in Travis County District Court by Debra Stephens, who worked for the department's crime lab for nine years until she was let go last year.
Stephens later filed a complaint against the lab alleging improper shortcuts during drug evidence testing.
In April, that complaint sparked an investigation into the lab by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
In her lawsuit, Stephens alleges that the letter Acevedo wrote firing her contains "statements known and proven to be false" that have affected her ability to find work and make money. These statements, she said, were distributed by the department and the city, which she said makes them culpable for libel.
City spokesman Reyne Telles said city officials "look forward to reviewing the allegations."
"We are confident the outcome will reflect the outstanding work done by our crime lab every day," Telles said.
Stephens said she was fired from the Austin lab for pointing out policy violations there.
"It's important to me to restore my good name," said Stephens, who now works for a private lab in San Antonio.
She is seeking a maximum of $15 million in damages, according to the lawsuit.
Assistant Police Chief Sean Mannix said department officials have not been served with the lawsuit. He declined to comment on the suit's allegations because it is a pending court case.
In her suit, Stephens said that department officials brought her up for a "pre-termination hearing" in November 2010, about a year after she sent a corrected blood alcohol level test to the lawyer of a man charged with intoxication assault
. The suit said she discovered the original report was incorrect in August 2009 and informed the lawyer soon after.
The suit said that state law required her to report the corrected amount, but department officials told her that was a violation of lab policy — though she said they could not produce written evidence of this policy.
The lawsuit said Stephens' supervisor also unsuccessfully attempted to have her certification as a technical supervisor revoked
with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which accredits Texas crime labs. Had she lost the certification, Stephens said, she would be unable to work as a breath alcohol expert.
Stephens was fired in April 2011.
Her personnel file indicates that she was fired for insubordination and other reasons.
The following month, the lawsuit said, she filed a request for a wrongful termination hearing, and in June an administrative judge ruled that Acevedo's allegations in the termination letter were not true, the lawsuit said.
"Ms. Stephens was an exemplary employee who received several service awards and was given favorable performance reviews for all the nine years she was employed at APD," the lawsuit said.
Stephens made one of two complaints against the Austin lab that led the Texas Forensic Science Commission to open an investigation last month.
The second complaint was filed by another facility, Integrated Forensic Laboratories in Euless, which questioned testing results or procedures used on evidence in three cases in which it followed up on work by the Austin lab.
A three-member subcommittee of the Forensic Science Commission will lead the investigation, holding meetings that will be open to the public.
The subcommittee will report its findings to the full commission, which will conclude the case with a written determination.
Mannix said that the commission's investigation into the Austin lab is still in its earliest stages.
"We look forward to another set of eyes looking at our lab again," he said. "We believe the investigation will have a positive outcome for the lab."
Contact Patrick George at