JOSEPH R. MAESTAS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
TOWN OF TAOS, Defendant-Appellee.
FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TAOS COUNTY Sarah C. Backus,
Herrera Firm, P.C. Samuel M. Herrera Taos, NM for Appellant.
& Zamora, LLC Tony F. Ortiz Santa Fe, NM for Appellee.
& Associates Mark D. Standridge Las Cruces, NM for Amicus
Curiae New Mexico Defense Lawyers Association.
H. Zamora, Judge.
After Plaintiff Joseph Maestas was terminated from his
position with the Town of Taos he brought a suit under the
Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), NMSA 1978, §§
10-16C-1 to -6 (2010), alleging the Town had terminated his
employment in retaliation for complaints he made about
mismanagement and waste. A jury found the Town had violated
the WPA but nevertheless did not award Maestas any damages.
Maestas argues that the district court abused its discretion
in certain evidentiary rulings before and during trial, in
denying his posttrial motions for a new trial and for
equitable relief, and that the district court erred by
failing to award him attorney fees and costs under the WPA.
We agree with Maestas that the WPA requires payment of
reasonable attorney fees and litigation costs upon a finding
that an employer has violated the WPA. Accordingly, we
reverse the district court in that respect but otherwise
When Maestas began his employment with the Town in August
2010, he signed a copy of the Employee's Statement of
Receipt and Understanding of Policy, including the Internet
use policy, which provided that "I know that any
violation of this policy could lead to disciplinary action
against me up to termination of employment[.]" The
Internet use policy prohibited use of the Town's
computers to view pornography. In April 2014 Maestas was
discovered viewing pornography on his Town-owned work
computer during work hours, and, the Town terminated
Maestas's employment less than two weeks later.
Maestas filed a complaint against the Town in February 2015.
The complaint alleged that the Town terminated Maestas's
employment in violation of the WPA and breached the covenant
of good faith and fair dealing. Maestas alleged that he had
complained to the Town officials and councilors during his
employment about mismanagement, waste of funds, and improper
acts involving road procurement contracts, and that the Town
terminated him in retaliation for those complaints. He
requested compensation for actual damages, reinstatement,
back pay, and punitive damages, as well as attorney fees and
At trial, the Town's information technology manager
testified that the Town located over 5000 pornographic images
on Maestas's computer. The district court denied
Maestas's motion in limine to exclude these images from
evidence and the images were admitted at trial, although only
approximately thirty images were used during questioning and
included with the exhibits in the jury room. While Maestas
admitted he had been viewing pornography at work, he
testified that he was not terminated for viewing pornography,
but rather, because he had reported malfeasance by Town
employees. Maestas testified that he had lost income and
suffered emotional distress, and further stated that he was
not requesting reinstatement of his position with the Town
"at this time."
At the close of trial, the jury returned a verdict finding
the Town violated the WPA and that Maestas was damaged, but
the jury did not award any damages to Maestas. Following the
trial, Maestas filed motions with the district court for: (1)
a new trial, (2) equitable relief, and (3) attorney fees and
costs. Additional facts relevant to these motions are
included in our discussion of Maestas's arguments below.
The District Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion in Denying
Maestas's Motion for a New Trial on Damages
We begin by addressing Maestas's argument that the
district court abused its discretion in denying his motion
for a new trial on damages. During deliberations, the jury
sent a note to the judge referencing jury instruction number
thirteen. As given, instruction thirteen stated:
If you should decide in favor of [Maestas] on the question of
liability, you must then fix the amount of money which will
reasonably and fairly compensate him for any of the following
elements of damages proved by him to have resulted from the
wrongful conduct of the [Town] as claimed[.]
13-1802 NMRA. The note was misplaced and is not in the
record. However, the following exchange took place ...