N.M. CO gets job back, $479,000 from wrongful termination settlement
The CO was terminated in 2020 after complaining about harassment, humiliation and sexual misconduct toward women staff
By Phaedra Haywood
The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. — The state Corrections Department has agreed to pay $479,000 to settle a whistleblower lawsuit filed by an employee who said she faced retaliation and wrongful termination when she reported misogynistic working conditions at a state-run women's prison in Springer.
The payout is in addition to a $50,000 partial settlement Veronica Bernal Martin previously received on the eve of a state Personnel Board hearing in her case, during which she was reinstated to a new position within the department as part of an agreement that allowed her to continue pursuing her lawsuit.
"Justice was obtained from the results," Martin's attorney Ryan Villa said in a phone interview Thursday.
The state spent about $64,500 litigating the 2021 case before agreeing to the settlement last month, according to information provided by the state General Services Department.
"Settlements represent a compromise to avoid the expense of litigation and are in no way an admission of liability," department spokeswoman Carmelina Hart wrote in an email statement.
Martin, a mother of four, had worked for the department in Southern New Mexico for more than a decade when she was promoted to unit manager at Springer Correctional Center in 2019, according to her lawsuit filed last year in District Court.
Her attorney said the job was a dream come true for Martin and she moved her family hundreds of miles from the Las Cruces area to Springer, less than 200 miles from Colorado's border, to accept the promotion. But shortly after starting her new job, she began to receive reports from inmates about abuse of authority and retaliation by correctional staff and experienced sex discrimination and harassment herself. She also witnessed other female staff members being harassed and humiliated by correctional staff, according to the lawsuit.
Martin complained up the chain of command in November 2019, her lawsuit says, and three days later was walked off prison grounds, ordered to move her family out of state housing and placed on administrative leave while she was investigated for what her lawsuit says were fabricated allegations of misconduct.
The department fired her in 2020, the lawsuit says.
The agency agreed to reinstate her to a position at Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility in May as part of a negotiated settlement reached just before a New Mexico State Personnel Office hearing in her case was set to begin, Villa said.
Less than two weeks after returning to work, Martin suffered a stroke, Villa said, and was in dire straits because her benefits had lapsed while she'd been unemployed.
Villa said his client is back at work and "doing better ... but still recovering."
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