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Maestas v. Town of Taos

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

November 5, 2019

JOSEPH R. MAESTAS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
TOWN OF TAOS, Defendant-Appellee.

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TAOS COUNTY Sarah C. Backus, District Judge.

          The Herrera Firm, P.C. Samuel M. Herrera Taos, NM for Appellant.

          Ortiz & Zamora, LLC Tony F. Ortiz Santa Fe, NM for Appellee.

          Jarmie & Associates Mark D. Standridge Las Cruces, NM for Amicus Curiae New Mexico Defense Lawyers Association.

          OPINION

          Briana H. Zamora, Judge.

         {¶1} 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 affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         {¶2} 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.

         {¶3} 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 costs.

         {¶4} 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."

         {¶5} 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.

         DISCUSSION

         I. The District Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion in Denying Maestas's Motion for a New Trial on Damages

         {¶6} 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[.]

         UJI 13-1802 NMRA. The note was misplaced and is not in the record. However, the following exchange took place ...


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