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NM settles female COs’ sexual harassment case for $2.5M

The suit accuses 23 male officers of physical threats and verbal abuse


In the suit, filed in 2015, female COs accused the men of “unthinkable and constant sexually based violence and harassment.”

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

By Steve Terrell
The Santa Fe New Mexican

LOS LUNAS, NM — The state government agreed this year to pay $2.5 million to six current and former female corrections officers as a settlement in a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and discrimination by 23 male guards at the state prison in Los Lunas.

In the suit, filed in 2015, the women accused the men of “unthinkable and constant sexually based violence and harassment,” including urinating and masturbating in front of them, screaming at them, calling them obscene names, propositioning them, fondling their breasts while they were being fitted for vests and physically threatening them on a regular basis.

One plaintiff said someone drew an obscene picture with her name on it that was on display in the prison “in plain sight” for years.

The suit claimed female officers had to endure sexist insults even during training sessions addressing domestic violence and sexual harassment.

The settlement, signed in late January, was sealed for six months, according to the terms of the agreement. The state agreed to pay the plaintiffs within 30 days of the signing.

The state Corrections Department has denied the allegations and has said the settlement was reached to avoid a costly legal battle. Department spokesman S.U. Mahesh, contacted after business hours Thursday, said, “The settlement speaks for itself.”

The agreement says the Corrections Department “denies the allegations in the lawsuits and this agreement does not constitute and will not be construed as an admission … of any unlawful, improper or wrongful conduct” in regard to the allegations in the suit.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Antoinette De La Cruz, Allison Eastman, Benita Joe, Many Kennedy, Niadra Lemons and Nicole Romero.

In the suit, the women said supervisors were aware of the situation but did not take appropriate action.

The women initially included former Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel and former Deputy Secretary Joe Booker as defendants in the suit, saying the top officials had ignored allegations of widespread sexual harassment and violence against female corrections officers. Last year, however, state District Judge Francis Mathew ruled the plaintiffs had not provided enough evidence to take the two officials to trial.

Government employees generally are protected under the doctrine of qualified immunity, so they can perform their official duties without facing the constant threat of litigation — unless it can be proven they intended to violate someone’s constitutional rights.

Attorney Laura Schauer Ives said at a court hearing last year that Lemons had sent Booker a document describing the “lewd” behavior she encountered at the prison. Booker, in a deposition, said he passed Lemons’ document to the department’s Office of Professional Standards.

The complaint says Lemons also spoke at a town hall for corrections officers in December 2013, telling the crowd, which included top administrators, that women faced a sexually hostile work environment and discrimination daily.