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Sinfuego v. Curry County Board of County Commissioners

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 19, 2018

AMANDA SINFUEGO, Plaintiff,
v.
CURRY COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS, a political sub-division existing under the laws of the state of New Mexico; LANCE PYLE, in his Official capacity as County Manager, and individually, and TORI SANDOVAL, in her official capacity as Curry County Detention Center Administrator and in her individual capacity, Defendants.

          Eric D. Dixon Attorney & Counselor at Law, P.A. Portales, New Mexico Attorney for the Plaintiff

          Quentin Smith Eleanor C. Werenko Sheehan & Sheehan, P.A. Albuquerque, New Mexico and Barbara Evans Bryan D. Evans Carla Neusch Williams Atwood, Malone, Turner & Sabin, P.A. Roswell, New Mexico Attorneys for Defendants Curry County Board of Commissioners, Lance Pyle, and Tori Sandoval

          Brandon Huss New Mexico Association of Counties Santa Fe, New Mexico and Dennis K. Wallin Wallin, Huss, & Associates, LLC Moriarty, New Mexico Attorneys for Defendant Lance Pyle

          James P. Barrett P. Scott Eaton Eaton Law Office PC Albuquerque, New Mexico Attorneys for Defendant Tori Sandoval

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant Curry County Board of County Commissioners' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, filed February 21, 2017 (Doc. 87)(“Motion”). The Court held a hearing on August 30, 2017. The primary issues are: (i) whether under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, the Memorandum Opinion and Order, No. CIV 15-0563, 2017 WL 3503380, filed February 14, 2017 (Doc. 85)(“SJ MOO”) that the Honorable Carmen E. Garza, Magistrate Judge for the District of New Mexico, wrote dismissing Amanda Sinfuego's claims of civil rights violations against Defendant Lance Pyle precludes Sinfuego from pursuing her same claims against Defendant Curry County Board of County Commissioners (“Curry County”); and (ii) whether the SJ MOO ruling precludes Sinfuego from pursuing her claims of civil rights violations against Curry County under the theory of law of the case.

         Under collateral estoppel, the SJ MOO in Pyle's favor is not preclusive in the same action, because it is not a final adjudication. See Trujillo v. Rio Arriba Cty. ex rel. Rio Arriba Cty. Sheriffs Dep't 319 F.R.D. 571, 639 (D.N.M. 2016)(Browning, J.). The SJ MOO in Pyle's favor is interlocutory, so it has no preclusive effect as to another defendant in the case. See SJ MOO at 29, 2017 WL 3503380, at *13. The Court thus concludes that the SJ MOO for Pyle does not preclude Sinfuego from pursuing her claims against Curry County under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. The Court also concludes that law of the case will not preclude Sinfuego from pursuing her claims against Curry County, because the SJ MOO is interlocutory and because new evidence may bear on Sinfuego's case against Curry County. Accordingly, the Court will deny the Motion.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Court takes the facts from Sinfuego's Civil Complaint For Violation of Civil Rights and the Whistleblower Protection Act, filed July 1, 2015 (Doc. 1)(“Complaint”). The same standards for evaluating a 12(b)(6) motion apply to a motion for a judgment on the pleadings. See Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Farm Credit Bank of Wichita, 226 F.3d 1138, 1160 (10th Cir. 2000)(“A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is treated as a motion to dismiss under rule 12(b)(6).”). Thus, the Court accepts “all facts pleaded by the non-moving party as true and grants all reasonable inferences from the pleadings in that party's favor.” Sanders v. Mountain Am. Fed. Credit Union, 689 F.3d 1138, 1141 (10th Cir. 2012).

         The Curry County Detention Center (“Curry Detention”) hired Sinfuego in 2010. See Complaint ¶ 11, at 5. After beginning employment at Curry Detention, Sinfuego completed a one-year probationary period, and maintained “satisfactory” or better on all employee evaluations during her course of employment. Complaint ¶¶ 12, 18, at 5. Sinfuego was a member of the Teamsters Union and was active in efforts to organize the Curry Detention employees into a collective bargaining unit. See Complaint ¶ 15, at 5. On December 3, 2012, Sinfuego, along with another Curry Detention employee, spoke with Pyle, the Curry County Manager, about their concerns regarding conditions at Curry Detention, and Sinfuego discussed the potential for a collective bargaining unit to address these concerns. See Complaint ¶ 16, at 5-6. On December 6, 2012, Sinfuego sent a text message to all staff members of Curry Detention, in which she discussed Pyle and advised the staff members of the proposed next steps in forming a union. See Complaint ¶ 19, at 6. On December 13, 2012, Pyle sent an email to the Curry County attorney, in which Pyle stated that Sinfuego's message was “incorrect, misleading, and slanderous, ” and that he recommended that disciplinary action be taken against Sinfuego. Complaint ¶¶ 21, 22, at 7-8.

         Sinfuego made multiple complaints to her supervisors regarding the lack of cleaning supplies and unsanitary conditions at Curry Detention, of which Tori Sandoval, the acting, and then later permanent Detention Center Administrator, was aware. See Complaint ¶¶ 24, 25, at 8-9. Sinfuego states that Curry Detention employees were not provided with adequate supplies to perform their daily tasks and safely interact with inmates. See Complaint ¶ 24, at 8. At the time that Sinfuego filed her Complaint, portions of Curry Detention were closed because of toxic mold. See Complaint ¶ 26, at 9.

         On December 3, 2013, Sinfuego was informed that her employment was to be terminated. See Complaint ¶ 27, at 9. On January 7, 2014, Pyle upheld Sinfuego's termination. See Complaint ¶ 28, at 9. Sinfuego states that her termination was in retaliation for her engagement in protected activities, namely, the union organization and complaints about the state of Curry Detention. See Complaint ¶ 28, at 9.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Sinfuego filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, alleging that: (i) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Defendants violated her First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America freedom-of-speech rights; (ii) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Defendants violated her First Amendment right to freely associate; (iii) pursuant to 42 U.S.C.§ 1983, the Defendants violated her First Amendment right to petition for the redress of grievances; and (iv) the Defendants retaliated against her in violation of the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act, N.M. Stat. Ann. § 10-16C-3(A), (“NMWPA”). See Complaint ¶¶ 29-60, at 10-15. On September 19, 2016, Sinfuego and the Defendants agreed to voluntarily dismiss Sandoval from the case. See Stipulated Voluntary Dismissal with Prejudice of all Claims Against Defendant Tori Sandoval, filed September 19, 2016 (Doc. 53). Pyle then moved for summary judgment and qualified immunity on November 28, 2016. See Defendant Lance Pyle's Motion for Summary Judgment and Qualified Immunity, filed November 28, 2016 (Doc. 69)(“SJ Motion”). Pyle argued that he was entitled to summary judgment, because Sinfuego failed to demonstrate that he violated her First Amendment rights as his only involvement in her employment termination was to confirm the termination recommendation and that the conversation between himself and Sinfuego pertaining to her union activity took place over one year before her termination. See SJ Motion at 8-9.

         On February 14, 2017, Magistrate Judge Garza, granted Pyle's motion for summary judgment and dismissed with prejudice all charges against him. See SJ MOO at 1; 2017 WL 3503380, at *1.[2] Regarding Sinfuego's contention that she was terminated in retaliation for her union activities, Magistrate Judge Garza concluded that, “[the] Plaintiff cannot show that her union activity was a substantial factor in the termination of her employment; consequently the Court will grant Defendant Pyle summary judgment.” SJ Moo at 24; 2017 WL 3503380, at *11. Magistrate Judge Garza came to this conclusion after analyzing Sinfuego's claims under the test developed from Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968) and Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), the Garcetti/Pickering test. Magistrate Judge Garza concluded that Sinfuego's claim did not pass the fourth and fifth steps of the Garcetti/Pickering test, [3] because she “cannot show that her union activity was a substantial factor in the termination of her employment, ” and her employment was terminated following her violation of the Curry County sexual harassment policy. SJ MOO at 24; 2017 WL 3503380, at *11.

         1. The Motion.

         On February 21, 2017, Curry County filed the Motion. See Motion at 1-2. Additionally, Curry County filed a Memorandum Brief in Support of Defendant Curry County's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, filed February 21, 2017 (Doc. 88)(“Memo. Brief). Curry County argues that the summary judgment in favor of Pyle precludes Sinfuego from pursuing her claims against Curry County under the doctrines of collateral estoppel and/or law of the case. See Motion at 1-2. Specifically, Curry County argues that Magistrate Judge Garza's earlier finding of a “lack of causation between Plaintiff s protected speech/activities and the termination of her employment with Curry County also necessitate the dismissal of the claims . . . brought against Curry County.” Memo. Brief at 5. It follows, according to Curry County, that Sinfuego's constitutional rights were not violated, and thus “each of her Section 1983 claims against Curry County . . . fail as a matter of law.” Memo. Brief at 6.

         Regarding Sinfuego's claim under the NMWPA, Curry County also argues that Magistrate Judge Garza's “findings on the First Amendment retaliation theories preclude Plaintiff s NMWPA claim against Curry County.” Memo. Brief at 7. Curry County argues that Sinfuego's “alleged ‘whistleblowing' activity . . . is exactly the same as her protected First Amendment activities.” Memo. Brief at 8. Curry County argues that law of the case applies to “those issues that were ‘implicitly resolved in prior proceedings in the same court.'” Memo. Brief at 8 (citing Entek GRB, LLC v. Stull Ranches, LLC, 840 F.3d 1239, 1241 (10th Cir. 2016)). Curry County argues that because the Court has implicitly resolved the issue of causation regarding her union activity and employment termination by deciding that the decision to terminate Sinfuego was appropriate, that law-of-the-case doctrine is appropriate and applicable. See Memo. Brief at 8. Further, Curry County argues that collateral estoppel applies to preclude Sinfuego's NMWPA claim against Curry County. See Memo. Brief at 8. Curry County describes the required elements of collateral estoppel and argues that all but the first element are straightforward. See Memo. Brief at 9-10. Regarding the first element of collateral estoppel, which requires that “the issue previously decided is identical with the one presented in the action in question, ” Curry County argues that, while the causes of action for Sinfuego's first three counts are not identical to the fourth count, the causation issue is identical between all four counts. See Memo. Brief at 9-10. Curry County argues that the “same evidence and arguments” considered for summary judgment for the First Amendment claims would also “defeat the causation element of Plaintiff s NMWPA claim.” Memo. Brief at 10.

         As to the remaining elements of collateral estoppel, Curry County argues that the issues are straightforward. See Memo. Brief at 10. For the second element -- requiring that the prior action have been finally adjudicated on the merits -- Curry County argues that the summary judgment dismissal “qualifies as an adjudication on the merits.” Memo. Brief at 10. Curry County argues that the third element is satisfied, as “the Plaintiff is the same party whose claims against Defendant Pyle were dismissed and against whom collateral estoppel is now being invoked.” Memo. Brief at 10. Finally, as to the fourth element, Curry County argues that there did not exist in the previous matter any procedural limitations to “prevent Plaintiff from fully and fairly litigating the causation issue that effectively disposes of her NMWPA claim.” Memo. Brief at 10-11.

         2. The Response.

         Sinfuego responds that Curry County's arguments fail, because her claims against Curry County are broader than the issue examined in the context of Pyle in the summary judgment matter and that the Court has not previously considered her claim pertaining to the NMWPA. See Plaintiff Amanda Sinfuego's Response to “Defendant Curry County's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings” and Memorandum in Opposition, filed March 7, 2017 (Doc. 91)(“Response”). Sinfuego first distinguishes the present matter from Entek GRB, LLC v. Stull Ranches, LLC (cited by Curry County in Motion). See Response at 4. She contends that the case pertains to a party re-appealing a matter with the same arguments that the party used earlier, but the present matter includes a Motion for Summary Judgment and a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. See Response at 4.

         Sinfuego then argues that her First Amendment claims against Curry County are broader than what Magistrate Judge Garza examined in the summary judgment matter. Sinfuego argues that the summary judgment matter is narrowly focused on causation between her union activity and the termination of her employment, but that her claims against Curry County include much more, such as her complaints about the lack of supplies and the overall conditions at Curry Detention. See Response at 6-7. Sinfuego argues that her termination was therefore done in retaliation not only for her union activities, but also for bringing the other issues to the attention of Curry Detention. See Response at 8.

         Regarding the NMWPA claim, Sinfuego also argues that her claim is broader than what Curry County alleges. See Response at 10. Sinfuego argues that she made repeated complaints to the Defendants throughout the term of her employment and that the Defendants are attempting to focus only on the December 3, 2012, meeting. See Response at 10-11. Sinfuego also argues that collateral estoppel is not applicable. See Response at 11-13. Sinfuego highlights that, to apply collateral estoppel, the party must have had a “full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue, ” and the Court has not ruled on any motions regarding the substance of the NMWPA claim. Response at 13. Instead, Sinfuego argues that the Defendants are using only the findings from the earlier SJ MOO, and the causes of action for the First Amendment claims and the NMWPA claim are not identical. See Response at 12-13. Collateral estoppel therefore cannot be applicable. See Response at 12-13.

         3. The Reply.

         Curry County replies that Sinfuego has only restated her complaint and requests that the Court find for Curry County on this matter. See Reply Brief in Support of Defendant Curry County's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, filed March 17, 2017 (Doc. 92)(“Reply”). Curry County disputes Sinfuego's argument that her claims against Curry County are “broader” than those against Pyle and reiterates that the summary judgment motion was granted because Magistrate Judge Garza concluded that there was not a strong causal connection between her union activity and her employment termination. Reply at 2-3. Curry County reiterates its position that, “under law of the case and/or collateral estoppel principles, this finding necessarily defeats Plaintiffs First Amendment retaliation claims against Curry County.” Reply at 3.

         Curry County reiterates its argument that Sinfuego is precluded from pursuing the NMWPA claim. See Reply at 3. Curry County argues that:

Since Plaintiffs alleged “whistleblowing” activity for the purpose of her NMWPA claim is the same as her protected speech for the purpose of her First Amendment retaliation claims, then her failure to establish she was terminated in retaliation for her protected speech also means that she cannot establish she was terminated in violation of the NMWPA.

Reply at 3. Curry County argues that Sinfuego does not address this problem, but instead repeats arguments that she attempted to employ at the summary judgment stage. See Reply at 3. Curry County then concedes -- for the purpose of the Motion -- that Sinfuego engaged in “whistleblowing” activity, but that Sinfuego cannot prevail, because Magistrate Judge Garza has already found that her “whistleblowing” activity was not a substantial factor in the termination of her employment. Reply at 4. Curry County also replies that Sinfuego, in her response, does not dispute that she had a “full and fair” opportunity to litigate the issue of causation. Reply at 4.

         4. The Hearing.

         The Court held a hearing on August 30, 2017. The Court expressed its reservations about the argument from Curry County that Magistrate Judge Garza had made “findings, ” because the Court, in a summary judgment motion, determines only whether there are any genuine issues of material fact, and fact-finding is a task that is left to a jury -- an entity that is not present during summary judgment. Draft Transcript of Hearing at 6:4-10 (taken August 30, 2017)(“Tr.”)(Court).[4]

         Regarding collateral estoppel, the Court stated that the “second prong of collateral estoppel [is] fatal for [Curry County's] arguments.” Tr. at 8:4-5. (Court). In response to the Court's inquiry as to whether Curry County was arguing that the Court was bound by the decision of the SJ MOO, Curry County stated: “I absolutely concede that this [summary judgment ruling favoring Pyle] is an interlocutory ruling by the Court and the Court can revisit that ruling, so this is purely [a] discretion[ary] decision by the Court as to whether to apply law of the case.” Tr. at 10:10-14 (Smith). Sinfuego informed the Court that there is additional evidence recently obtained, and, thus, a summary judgment motion for Curry County would be different than the summary judgment motion for Pyle. See Tr. at 22:6-10 (Dixon). Specifically, Sinfuego informed the Court that there are two additional witnesses, along with recently made depositions. See Tr. at 23:5-7 (Dixon).

         The Court informed the parties that it was “inclined to think that there is not collateral estoppel or law of the case here.” Tr. at 30:7-8 (Court). The Court stated that because of Sinfuego's admission pertaining to additional witnesses, Sinfuego should be able to present the new witnesses, potentially in a summary judgment motion. See Tr. at 30:11-13 (Court). The Court advised that it likely would not move to the NMWPA claim, as that could be filed and litigated in state court. See Tr. at 31:16-18 (Court).

         5. ...


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