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APS board member Korte sues UNM over firing

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque school board member Kathy Korte is suing the University of New Mexico for allegedly forcing her to quit her community relations job after the Journal published a story about her labeling a state legislator as a “traitor” in a Facebook posting.

In July, Korte posted a picture of a political mailing from Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, in whose West Side district she lives. She had written on the mailing: “Return to sender. Traitor. You are not listening.”

Korte has been an outspoken critic of the education agenda pushed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and supported by most GOP lawmakers.

KORTE: Worked on community relations at UNM Hospital

KORTE: Worked on community relations at UNM Hospital

Korte later said she called Pacheco a traitor in large part because he voted to increase “below-the-line” education funding, money the Public Education Department can spend on targeted programs, as opposed to giving it to school districts to spend as they wish.

She said she and like-minded West Side residents had urged Pacheco to vote against increasing below-the-line funding during the legislative session earlier this year.

“He is a traitor to his fellow neighbors,” Korte told the Journal at the time.

She said she took down the post after an hour when she realized her address was printed on the mailer.

Korte was employed by the university hospital from May 2013 to July of this year. In the lawsuit, she says that during her interview for the job, she informed UNMH about her position as an Albuquerque Public Schools board member and “her personal activities speaking out, advocating and campaigning for education reform.”

At times, in the course of her job with the hospital, she would be recognized as an APS board member, she says in the suit, and whenever that happened, “she would clearly differentiate that role from her position with UNMH.” Additionally, when she returned to places where she previously had advocated for UNMH to speak about educational issues, it was on her own time and, again, she would differentiate between the two roles.

This photo shows a Facebook post by Albuquerque Public Schools board member Kathy Korte, in which she had written "Traitor" on a mailing from Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque. Korte is now suing the University of New Mexico, claiming she was given the option of resigning or being terminated from her community relations job there after the Journal published a story about the Facebook posting.

This photo shows a Facebook post by Albuquerque Public Schools board member Kathy Korte, in which she had written “Traitor” on a mailing from Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque. Korte is now suing the University of New Mexico, claiming she was given the option of resigning or being terminated from her community relations job there after the Journal published a story about the Facebook posting.

On July 7, she was contacted by a Journal reporter about the Facebook posting and the word “traitor.” Two days later, the newspaper published a story about her dispute with Pacheco. In the suit, she says she “immediately” notified her supervisor, Missy LaBate, who told Korte she had not read the story.

The very next day, however, Korte was called into LaBate’s office. According to the suit, Ryan Randall, director of employee and labor relations at UNMH, was holding a copy of the previous day’s newspaper. He informed her that the “committee of leadership” had met “and had made a decision to separate her employment from UNMH.”

Randall, the suit states, gave her “an ultimatum, either to resign from her job at UNMH and leave the building of her own free will, or to be terminated and escorted off the premises by security.”

Korte then asked if resigning from her Board of Education work would resolve the issue and was told it would not, according to the suit. On Tuesday, she filed for re-election to the board, where she is being challenged by retired teacher Peggy Muller-Aragon.

She also asked if she could change jobs at UNMH instead of being terminated and again was told no, the suit states.

Facing “the humiliation of being escorted out of the building in front of her coworkers and the stigma of being terminated, she was left with no choice other than to resign,” the suit states. She returned the next day at 6 a.m. to retrieve her belongings.

The “termination caused her humiliation and embarrassment,” she says. Moreover, UNM’s decision to fire her “in retaliation for her exercise of protected free speech … were intentional, malicious, wanton and willful, and undertaken in reckless disregard of and with deliberate indifference to Ms. Korte’s rights,” the suit continues.

The lawsuit cites UNM’s “retaliatory actions undertaken in violation of Korte’s (First Amendment) civil rights.”

Korte, whose lawsuit says she received a positive performance evaluation after one year on the job, is seeking monetary damages, legal fees and equitable relief – namely that she be reinstated.

On Tuesday, she declined to discuss the suit, instead referring inquiries to her attorney, Rachel Higgins. Higgins said the complaint was filed in state court, which has supplemental jurisdiction over federal matters such as constitutional civil rights.

Higgins would not say how much Korte is seeking, other than “it was her job.” The complaint asks for damages “in excess of $25,000.”

UNM officials would not discuss the suit. Jim Pendergast, the administrator for UNM Hospitals, issued a brief statement saying Korte was employed from May 20, 2013, to July 11, 2014.

“Where the parties disagree, no doubt the facts will come out of the proceedings,” he said.

Higgins said UNM has yet to respond to the complaint, which was filed Nov. 18.

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