Sunday, July 20, 2014

City Employee Wins Judgment against City

A year after a jury awarded former Doña Ana County Public Works Director Jorge Granados $250,000 in damages, another jury has awarded Las Cruces City employee Sandra Hunter $ 50,000. 
On July 3, 2013, a jury determined Granados had been retaliated against and subjected to a hostile work environment. I talked to jurors afterward. They were in Howard Beale mode: damned mad and not going to take it anymore. 
On July 11, 2014, a jury held the City liable for a hostile work environment suffered by Hunter. (She did not succeed on other claims.)

(Lawyers Daniela Labinoti and Brett Duke, who represented both Granados and Hunter, also recently filed a lawsuit against the D.A's Office.) 
Ms. Hunter began working for the City in 2004. She complained of discrimination, and in 2006 she pointed out that employees were getting paid for unworked time through falsified time records.  

The City allegedly responded by punishing her. She filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although filing such charges is legally protected, the City punished her further. Allegedly, Hunter kept doing her job well but the City repeatedly transferred her, placed her on administrative leave, put her through a forced psychiatric evaluation, and unfairly disciplined her for matters that other employees weren't disciplined for. 
For example, Hunter alleged that one day she called to tell her supervisor she would be fifteen minutes late.  Her supervisor being unavailable, Hunter left a message with the supervisor's assistant.  The City investigated this incident at length, conducting multiple interviews and drafting numerous memoranda, and eventually suspended Hunter without pay for one day. Hunter says other employees were frequently late and went unreprimanded. 

Hunter will receive some compensation for her emotional distress.

We get no reimbursement for any tax dollars spent harassing this woman. Or for the $50,000 plus very substantial attorney fees we'll pay. 
I sat through the week-long Granados trial. (The jurors' disgust with then-County-Manager Sue Padilla and other officials was readily understandable to me.) I also knew the case could have and should have been settled before trial, saving the County a million dollars or so.

I didn't hear a word of testimony in Hunter, so I won't assess the verdict. (I've spoken a bit to lawyers on both sides, but don't feel comfortable getting into detail about testimony I wasn't present for. The City disagrees with the verdict but hasn't decided whether or not to appeal.)

But I did immediately wonder how this happened. 
One key witness was EEO Specialist Mary Pierce. Ironically, Pierce, then employed by the County, was a major player in the Sally Ramirez discrimination case – which, as I discussed in a column last year, ended with Doña Ana County subjected to U.S. Department of Justice monitoring and required to retrain County employees.

Did the City factor in Ramirez when hiring Pierce? Will the City require some retraining of her after Hunter? Or is Pierce blameless?

Don't know. City officials can't discuss personnel matters.

Meanwhile the recent effort by Sheriff Garrisonberger to fire Undersheriff Eddie Lerma was a ready-made lawsuit. Todd Garrison's the third Sheriff to have Lerma serve as Undersheriff. Lerma served under Garrison for nearly four years – then had the sense to doubt whether Rick Seeberger's tight control of Garrison's operation was good for the County. A firing offense. I doubt Seeberger cared about fairness or whether the County paid Lerma damages some day. 
Granados was one among many recent cases by former employees against the County. I hope Hunter is anomalous, and doesn't mean the City is getting equally careless in its treatment of employees.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 20 July 2014.]

[With regard to the last paragraph: I can't overstate the difference in context.  I was hearing incredible numbers of complaints -- and incredibly passionate complaints -- about the county manager and her pals from county employees, former county employees, and others doing business (or charity) with the county.  Most of the places I saw or smelled smoke, further investigation turned up a lot of fire.  In addition, there were a host of lawsuits by employees and former employees.  Too, I have the impression from a variety of sources that the Granados case could have been settled for a small fraction of what the County ultimately spent on it.  (I know a lot less about Hunter, but the verdict was a lot smaller than the Granados verdict.) 
I spent a week in court observing the Granados trial because it seemed symptomatic of a serious problem; and when I wrote about it on the blog, hundreds of people, including many county employees and officials, read the posts and many individuals contacted me, some of them anonymously, concerning problems with county administration.  Hunter -- the facts of which started nearly a decade ago, even before the tenure of current City Manager Bob Garza -- seems a more isolated case (and a closer one, if I read the jury's verdict right).    
Having said that, though, let me make clear that I'm open to hearing about problems with any government entity. ]


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    1. Thanks, Sarah.
      [i'm writing this contact info oddly to that a "'bot" won't easily pick it up and add it to a bulk mailing list:]
      from my name, peter goodman, my email address has, as all one word, my first initial, my last name, and the word photography --
      or you can telephone me: usual area code for las cruces, then:
      1 -