Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sheriffs Hire Interesting Top Assistants

I've voiced strong (and warranted) criticism of the county's Human Resources Department; but there are reasons to have HR. 

The previous sheriff hired someone with an interesting record but no law enforcement experience. Sheriff Garrison admired him. Many deputies didn't. They complained. I wrote several columns. Eventually he left, though on his way out he sued everyone in sight, including me. (A year later the nonsensical lawsuit was dismissed.)

Sheriff Vigil hired a suspended lawyer as his right-hand man. The NM Supreme Court decision upholding his suspension makes one wonder how a competent HR specialist would view the hire. (Practicing law is not among his duties.) 

The court wrote of “a deeply troubling mosaic of ethical misconduct” that included “repeatedly violat[ing] his duty of candor to the court,” “dishonesty to the Court [and] lack of candor to others” including “a false statement” to a life insurance company, and “frivolous claims.” The lawyer, Dennis Montoya, stipulated to the facts.

In one case, a man died when a tire failed. He was survived by his girlfriend, who apparently had substance-abuse problems; their son, three years old; and her daughter. Montoya allegedly ignored the son's legal rights. He told courts that the girlfriend was the decedent's widow, which wasn't true. (There was a possible argument that she might have been the man's common-law wife in Utah.) Montoya allegedly told courts that the decedent was the father of the girlfriend's daughter. A great deal of money that should have gone to the son went to the troubled mother, inappropriately. 

Meanwhile, “several federal judges in separate proceedings publicly reprimanded Montoya for numerous, well-documented ethical lapses. . . . While it is rare for even one federal judge to single out and publicly admonish an attorney, several federal judges found it necessary to reprimand” him. The violations included filing a motion as “unopposed” when he knew it was opposed; filing an Age Discrimination suit alleging his client was 40+ and refusing to dismiss the case when he learned she was just 35; “he altered deposition testimony to favor his client”; and “he brought many frivolous claims and filed many frivolous motions in the federal courts.” (I'll try to include a link to the opinion in my blog post today.)

Mr. Montoya, who was running for the Court of Appeals at the time, says the Supreme Court was politically motivated. He was running against a Richardson appointee, and nearly won. At the start of the campaign, there was one complaint, from the judge he was running against. Then many more charges came in, timed to maximize harm to his campaign. He says the charges from federal cases went back as far as six years; and he adds that while federal judges have an obligation to report ethical misconduct that should be disciplined, the judges had not previously reported these incidents.

He says he “never claimed I never made mistakes” but that the Court's action, in vetoing a settlement agreement (in which his reinstatement was automatic, rather than subject to difficult conditions) and writing such a strongly-worded opinion, was political revenge. (I've found Montoya smart, forthcoming, and cooperative.)

I'm not on either side in the civil war between the sheriff and county manager. I see right and wrong on both sides. 

I do know some excellent deputies. They should have the tools and time they need. I hope the county manager and sheriff won't lose sight of the ball because they're concentrating on squabbling, or on avenging perceived slights; and Sheriff Vigil shouldn't undermine his own credibility as an advocate for his men by creating unnecessary rancor.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 6 March, and will appear shortly on KRWG-TV's website.  I invite comments -- here, on the newspaper's website, or on the KRWG site.]

[There's also a 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals opinion in "an unfortunate case of poor lawyering by Mr. Montoya.  Seventy-five year old John Smith sued the City of Las Cruces.  Smith heard noises, went outside, saw a lot going on, and asked an officer if something was wrong.  No answer.  He was told instead to go back inside.  The old man mumbled, "Well that just beats me, a man is not able to find out what happens in his front yard.  (In fact, there was a suicidal man with knives on the sidewalk.) The cops battered the old man, took him to jail, , after which he went to a medical center with two sprained wrists, contusions, and a back strain.  He sued.  City officers moved for summary judgment, saying they had qualified immunity against a suit.  The opinion says Smith's lawyer, Montoya, didn't really respond, so the court granted defendants summary judgment -- "though, as the court says, that doesn't mean Smith lacked "a meritorious case.   It is to say only we will never know, because clients like Mr. Smith are usually bound by their lawyers' actions -- or, as here, inactions.  Sometimes that means good cases are lost by bad lawyers, a lamentable cost of our legal system."]

[I should stress that I'm not equating Mr. Montoya with Mr. Seeberger.  I'm a bystander, with a healthy curiosity about what will turn out to be the reason(s) Mr. Montoya was placed on Administrative Leave a while back, apparently without a clear account of why.  That seems to be the new style of the County Manager -- as if county business were military or industrial secrets such that anyone suspected of anything had to be hustled out of the building instantly and not spoken to by anyone.  I'd also question having the "investigation" done by a lawyer who represents the county in litigation.  Nothing illegal about that, so far as I know; but it'd probably not seem fair to me if I were the target of the investigation.   Too, when Ms. Brown puts people on Administrative Leave for a lengthy period, you and I pay those people's salary for the period, while getting no useful work from those people.  When she hires a law firm to investigate, we might be paying $100 or $200 per hour -- essentially, I fear, for someone to find adequate support for an action she's already decided on.  Well, it's only money.  Ours.]

[Meanwhile, is it true she's also engaged an "expert" to prove the county sheriff's office is overstaffed?  I keep meaning to send in an IPRA Request on that subject, and maybe will add one regarding the contract with the investigating lawyer, to find out how much he's being paid?  I'll also call her and try to ask her, but she doesn't always answer or call me back.]

[Meanwhile, the county's expenditure of more bad lawyer-money (I mean the money's badly spent, not that the lawyers are bad; it'd be unfair to conclude that just because they lose) trying to get the judge in the Kim Stewart case to overrule the jury's award of damages?  Unsuccessful.  Judge Marci Beyer said no last week, in a six-page opinion.  I'd characterize it as saying not only "no" but "hell, no", albeit in courtesy and appropriate legal language.  One big selling point the county's lawyers pushed was that one of the jurors had hugged Plaintiff Kim Stewart afterward.  Unfortunately, what that says to me isn't that they were pals or the juror came to the case with prejudice, but rather that the appalling conduct of county officials created a certain sympathy in jurors for someone who they felt stood up against that conduct.  I sat through almost the whole trial in the Jorge Granados case a couple of years ago, and interviewed jurors on the way out, and they were saying things that sounded a lot like the hug in this case.  They told me to thank him for standing up.  
To lead with that as a major argument why the jury award should be reduced is understandable legally but kind of amusing in a human sense.  Or just plain sad.  
I'll analyze the case in more detail in an upcoming column, and add a link to the opinion; but the three or four arguments offered by the county's outside counsel didn't look like winners when filed and don't look like winners now.  But the county -- or, more likely, the New Mexico Association of Counties -- will likely pay these or another set of lawyers to dress up those arguments for the Court of Appeals.]

No comments:

Post a Comment