United States District Court, D. New Mexico
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
P. Barrett P. Scott Eaton Eaton Law Office PC Albuquerque,
New Mexico Attorneys for Defendant Tori Sandoval
MEMORANDUM OPINION 
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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