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NM Supreme Court denies college’s appeal in whistleblower case

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — The New Mexico Supreme Court last week denied Northern New Mexico College’s motion to overturn an Appeals Court ruling for wrongfully demoting and then terminating the former director of the college’s El Rito campus.

The case will now go back to the District Court to work out the details of the settlement.

Melissa Velasquez first filed suit against the college and its board of regents in 2015 after she was fired for raising concerns about financial mismanagement at the college. She was awarded nearly $420,000 — $239,451 for two years and 10 months in back pay and $180,000 for emotional distress — in a jury trial. The jury also ordered the college to reinstate Velasquez to her former position, though that position has since been filled.

Velasquez’s attorney, Chris Moody, said he and his client are working with the college to find Velasquez a position comparable to her former director role.

According to court documents, while Velasquez was director of the El Rito campus, she sent emails to administration voicing her concerns that the college was mishandling grant funds. She also complained directly to administrators, but was ignored. Soon after she made the complaints, she received a letter of reprimand and was assigned to another position.

“It’s been a long haul, but I think Ms. Velasquez feels proud of her role as a whistleblower,” Moody said.

Rick Bailey, Northern New Mexico College president, didn’t respond to calls with requests for comment on Friday.

Velasquez’s case is the last in a string of whistleblower lawsuits filed against the college during the administration of former NNMC President Nancy “Rusty” Barceló.

Together, settlements from five whistleblower lawsuits filed against the college have totaled more than $1 million.