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Garcia v. Hatch Valley Public Schools

Supreme Court of New Mexico

March 1, 2018

NATALIE F. GARCIA, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
HATCH VALLEY PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Defendant-Petitioner.

         ORIGINAL PROCEEDING ON CERTIORARI Douglas R. Driggers, District Judge

          German Burnette & Associates, LLC Ethan Watson Elizabeth L. German Albuquerque, NM for Petitioner.

          John P. Mobbs El Paso, TX Law Firm of Daniela Labinoti, P.C. Daniela Labinoti El Paso, TX for Respondent.

          OPINION

          PETRA JIMENEZ MAES, JUSTICE.

         {¶1} Plaintiff Natalie Garcia, née Watkins, sued her former employer, Defendant Hatch Valley Public Schools (HVPS), for employment discrimination under the New Mexico Human Rights Act (NMHRA), NMSA 1978, § 28-1-7(A), (I) (2004). Plaintiff alleged that HVPS terminated her employment as a school bus driver based on her national origin, which she described as "German" and "NOT Hispanic." HVPS successfully moved for summary judgment in the district court, and the Court of Appeals reversed, focusing on Plaintiff's "primary contention" that HVPS had discriminated against her and terminated her employment because she is not Hispanic. Garcia v. Hatch Valley Pub. Schs., 2016-NMCA-034, ¶¶ 11, 48, 369 P.3d 1.

         {¶2} We granted certiorari under Rule 12-502 NMRA and reverse the Court of Appeals. We hold that summary judgment in HVPS's favor was appropriate because Plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination and failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact about whether HVPS's asserted reason for terminating her employment was pretextual. In so holding, we also conclude that (1) the Court of Appeals properly focused on Plaintiff's contention that she is not Hispanic in analyzing her discrimination claim, (2) Plaintiff may claim discrimination under the NMHRA as a non-Hispanic, and (3) the plain language of the NMHRA does not place a heightened evidentiary burden on a plaintiff in a so-called "reverse" discrimination case.

         I. BACKGROUND

         {¶3} HVPS hired Plaintiff as a school bus driver in August of 2008 and renewed her contract for the 2009-2010 school year. In April of 2010, HVPS notified Plaintiff by letter that it would "terminate" her employment at the end of her contract and that it would not offer her a contract for the 2010-2011 school year. HVPS explained that it was terminating Plaintiff's employment "due to an unsatisfactory evaluation."

         {¶4} Plaintiff filed a complaint against HVPS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging race and national origin discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17 (2012). Plaintiff contended that her supervisor, Stephanie Brownfield, had discriminated and retaliated against her because Plaintiff is White and non-Hispanic. The EEOC issued an order of non-determination, and Plaintiff timely filed suit, alleging inter alia claims of discrimination and retaliation under the NMHRA, Section 28-1-7(A), (I), based upon Plaintiff's race and national origin. After a series of procedural steps, most of which are not relevant to this appeal, Plaintiff narrowed her complaint to a claim of discrimination under the NMHRA based on her national origin, which she characterized as "German" and "NOT Hispanic."

         {¶5} HVPS later moved for summary judgment and we address the summary judgment proceedings in detail below. For present purposes, we note that the district court ruled in HVPS's favor, concluding that the uncontroverted evidence showed that Brownfield was unaware that Plaintiff was of German descent and that Plaintiff's national origin, therefore, could not have been a motivating factor in the termination of her employment. The district court concluded in the alternative that Plaintiff had failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact to establish that HVPS's "stated legitimate business reason for the termination of her employment was pretextual."

         {¶6} Plaintiff appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed. Garcia, 2016-NMCA-034, ¶ 49. The Court focused on Plaintiff's claim that she was discriminated against because she is not Hispanic and applied the federal burden-shifting framework that we approved in Smith v. FDC Corp. for analyzing a discrimination claim under the NMHRA to HVPS's motion for summary judgment. 1990-NMSC-020, ¶ 9, 109 N.M. 514, 787 P.2d 433 ("The evidentiary methodology adopted [in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)] provides guidance for proving a violation of the [NMHRA]."). The Court of Appeals concluded that Plaintiff had established a prima facie case of discrimination and had raised a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of pretext, citing evidence of a Hispanic employee who reportedly had a dirty bus but was not fired. Garcia, 2016-NMCA-034, ¶¶ 45, 47. The Court therefore held the ultimate question of whether HVPS had discriminated against Plaintiff was for the jury to decide. See id. ¶¶ 46-47. We review additional facts and procedural history as necessary throughout this opinion.

         II. DISCUSSION

         {¶7} We granted certiorari on three issues: (1) whether the Court of Appeals erred in analyzing Plaintiff's claim for national origin discrimination as a claim for reverse racial discrimination; (2) if the Court of Appeals properly analyzed Plaintiff's national origin discrimination claim as a reverse racial discrimination claim, whether the Court erred in holding that so-called reverse discrimination plaintiffs do not have to meet a higher standard under the NMHRA; and (3) whether the Court of Appeals erred in reversing the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of HVPS. These are questions of law, which we review de novo. See Juneau v. Intel Corp., 2006-NMSC-002, ¶ 8, 139 N.M. 12, 127 P.3d 548.

         A. The Court of Appeals Properly Focused on Plaintiff's Contention that She Is Not Hispanic in Analyzing Her Discrimination Claim

         {¶8} As a threshold issue, we first address an aspect of this case that became unnecessarily complicated due to HVPS's litigation strategy in the district court. We discuss the issue in some detail to discourage similar tactics that needlessly consume the resources of courts and litigants alike. Like the Court of Appeals, we hold that the district court improperly focused on whether Brownfield knew that Plaintiff was of German descent when it granted summary judgment in HVPS's favor. See Garcia, 2016-NMCA-034, ¶ 10. We consider Plaintiff's alleged Germanic origins to be a false issue in this case, inserted only in response to HVPS's formalistic challenge to a routine discrimination claim.

         {¶9} Throughout this litigation, Plaintiff's consistent position has been that she was treated differently than her Hispanic coworkers and ultimately terminated because she is not Hispanic. Plaintiff identified herself in her original complaint as "a female citizen of the United States of America, " and she alleged that she "was subjected to discrimination . . . because of her race and/or national origin being of Caucasian descent." See § 28-1-7(A) (prohibiting discrimination by an employer based, inter alia, on a person's race or national origin). Plaintiff elaborated that she was treated differently than her coworkers "due to her not being Hispanic." She also alleged specific examples of how she was treated differently from various coworkers, whom she described as "being of Hispanic Origin" or "of Hispanic descent."

         {¶10} HVPS moved for judgment on the pleadings and, in its motion, revealed that it fully understood the basis of Plaintiff's claim. In HVPS's own words, "Plaintiff is apparently claiming she was discriminated against because she is a white non-Hispanic American." HVPS argued, however, that Plaintiff had failed to state a claim for racial discrimination because "White persons and Hispanic persons are both of the Caucasian race." HVPS similarly argued that Plaintiff had failed to state a claim for national origin discrimination because Plaintiff had failed to specify her national origin; more specifically, HVPS argued that identifying herself as an "American citizen" was insufficient. HVPS summed up the nature of its argument as follows at the hearing on its motion:

I'm not denying that there can be discrimination based on one's ethnicity, but those are more properly alleged or more properly pled in the [NMHRA] under other issues besides race or national origin. If they are under national origin, there has to be a national origin. American does not cut it.
It's not our job to help the plaintiff plead her case. She pleads her case, and then we respond.

         {¶11} The district court denied the motion but specifically found that "Plaintiff's Complaint [did] not set forth the elements necessary to state a cause of action for national origin discrimination." The district court therefore gave Plaintiff leave to amend her complaint and warned that "her cause of action will be dismissed unless the Amended Complaint sets forth the elements necessary to go forward with her claims." Plaintiff promptly amended her complaint, dropping racial discrimination as a basis for recovery and amending her national origin discrimination claim by describing herself for the first time as "German" and "of German descent." Her amended complaint, however, continued to allege that "she was treated differently than other . . . workers due to the fact that she was NOT Hispanic" and continued to describe her coworkers who allegedly received more favorable treatment as "ALL Hispanic." (Bold face in original.)

         {¶12} Defendant eventually moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiff had failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact that Plaintiff's supervisor, Brownfield, knew that Plaintiff is German. The motion for summary judgment did not meaningfully address that Plaintiff's national origin discrimination claim also was based on her being NOT Hispanic.[1] The district court granted summary judgment in HVPS's favor, specifically finding that Plaintiff's national origin discrimination claim failed because Brownfield was not aware of Plaintiff's German ...


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