LAS CRUCES — A jury on Thursday evening awarded more than $1 million in damages to Kim Stewart, the former Doña Ana County internal affairs investigator who sued the county over alleged retaliation by its management, ending a more than four-year legal battle between Stewart and county officials.
Jurors reached the verdict about 7 p.m. Thursday, after about three hours of deliberation and seven days of testimony in 3rd Judicial District Court in Las Cruces.
In 2010, Stewart was fired from the county, where she had worked for two years as an internal affairs investigator, then as a specialist in the Human Resources Department. Stewart said she was terminated in retaliation for conducting an investigation of Curtis Childress, then supervisor for the county’s animal control and codes enforcement department. Steward investigated Childress after he was accused of discriminating against Hispanic and African-American workers within the department.
District Judge Marci E. Beyer, who presided over the trial, read the verdict, which found that county officials had violated Stewart’s rights under New Mexico’s Human Rights Act and Whistleblower Protection Act. In part, jurors found that retaliation for reporting discrimination was a motivating factor in Stewart’s termination. Jurors also found that county officials subjected Stewart to a hostile work environment.
The jury awarded Stewart $154,840 in lost wages, $80,163 in benefits and $1 million for emotional distress and damages.
Stewart shed tears as the verdict was read.
“The first thing I thought was my name is cleared,” Stewart said.
She and her attorneys, Daniela Labinoti and Brett Duke, thanked members of the jury. “I’ve been called so much bad things by the county that finally my name is clean. I never did anything wrong to begin with. This is a huge vindication that I did the right thing.”
She said jurors played a major role in what she believes will be a new beginning for the county.
“This was needed to start the process of rebuilding the county and that culture,” she said, before adding, “Nothing happens over night, but I think this is going to be a big impetus to begin to look anew at how they go forward.”
During her testimony, which spanned three days, Stewart told jurors her relationship with her supervisors — then-county attorney John Caldwell and deputy county attorney David Medeiros — started to sour after the Childress investigation in June 2010. In October 2010, Caldwell locked Stewart out of a computer database system, which prevented her from completing her work. He also denied Stewart access into the county’s legal department.
Stewart said the retaliation continued in the form of a scathing job-performance evaluation written by Caldwell, which Stewart received when she transferred into a position in the county’s Human Resources Department. In the evaluation, which was presented as evidence, Caldwell called Stewart “dishonest” and “insubordinate.”
According to Stewart, the retaliation continued after she left her position as an internal affairs investigator. In December 2010, she said she received a written reprimand from Deborah Weir, director of the HR department. The reprimand noted several instances in which Stewart was unable to adequately perform certain job duties.
In explaining the reprimand to jurors, Weir said during testimony on Tuesday, “There were a series of events and issues that had come up, and I had met with Ms. Stewart from the very beginning of her employment to talk about the expectations of the department, about how the procedures and processes work — and that was not occurring despite follow-up conversations. I needed to correct some of the behaviors.”
Stewart contested the reprimand with a rebuttal, but she was ultimately fired in January 2011.
While the verdict was being read, Labinoti said she was in “disbelief.”
“But at the same time, I thought she deserved every penny,” Labinoti said, referring to Stewart. “Considering her suffering, I think it was a just compensation.”
Labinoti said the verdict should serve as a “loud and clear message” that the county “needs to fix the broken system.”
She added, “The county cannot continue to destroy people’s lives for reporting discrimination.”
After Stewart was fired, she struggled to find another job. She also lost her home and her medical insurance. At the time, her partner was battling cancer. Her family, including two children, eventually moved to Ecuador, where Stewart said she could afford medical insurance. While testifying, Stewart broke down in tears when she said her teenage daughter had been kidnapped for five hours in Ecuador.
Labinoti also represented the county’s former public works director, Jorge Granados, in his retaliation lawsuit against the county. In July 2013, Granados was awarded more than $250,000.
During his closing remark, Duke told the jurors that their verdict would make history.
“I want this to be a message so people aren’t afraid of going to work,” Duke said. “It’s a chance for employees to know that they have rights.”
The county’s contracted attorney, Randy Bartell, was unavailable for comment.
Carlos Andres López can be reached at 575-541-5453.
©2015 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)
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