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Whistleblower gets job back; award cut by $200K

SANTA FE – A Santa Fe district court judge this week ordered that a former Northern New Mexico College employee who won a whistleblower lawsuit against the college be immediately reinstated to her previous position, or to one in which she is qualified at the same rate of pay, and awarded her attorney’s fees.

But Judge Francis J. Mathew also cut back the amount the employee had been awarded previously by about $200,000.

Melissa Velasquez, who had served as director of NNMC’s El Rito campus and earned approximately $85,000 in salaries and benefits prior to being fired in 2014, is still to receive more than $475,000 in lost wages, interest and emotional distress. That amount includes $200,785 in attorney’s fees that the judge awarded.

But an attorney for the college has already filed a notice of appeal. One of the orders Mathew signed this week was denial of a defense motion for a new trial.

When asked on what grounds the college planned to appeal, NNMC attorney Mark Komer referred questions to the state’s General Services Department, which did not immediately respond to emailed questions on Friday.

Komer said the college will identify its grounds for appeal in a court document due within the next 30 days. He said that because the case is being appealed, Velasquez’s reinstatement remains up in the air.

Velasquez’s attorney, Christopher Moody, said he hoped the college would do what the judge ordered it to do. “We tried this case to a 12-person jury and they unanimously agreed with our case,” he said. “We’re disappointed that the judge cut the amount … but we’re confident that on appeal the damages will be reinstated.”

Velasquez’s lawsuit claimed that she was demoted from her position as director of the El Rito campus to coordinator of continuing education at the college’s main campus in Española after she reported financial abuses. She was later fired after she took various complaints – about malfeasance by college regents, mistreatment of women at the college, and waste and fraud in grant programs – to the state Auditor’s Office, the Higher Education Department and Gov. Susana Martinez.

NNMC had claimed she was let go as part of reduction in workforce while the college was in the midst of a financial crunch.

A Santa Fe jury sided with Velasquez and awarded her $420,000 in May. Before his actions this week, Mathew had increased the amount to $676,402, doubling what the jury had awarded for lost wages.

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