Nava v. City of Santa Fe

Decision Date13 October 2004
Docket NumberNo. 28,220.,28,220.
Citation103 P.3d 571,136 N.M. 647,2004 NMSC 39
PartiesDeanna NAVA, Plaintiff-Appellee-Cross-Appellant, v. CITY OF SANTA FE, a municipality under state law, Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court

Mark D. Jarmie, Albuquerque, NM, Mark L. Allen, Assistant City Attorney, Santa Fe, NM, for Appellant-Cross-Appellee.

Michael Schwarz, Santa Fe, NM, for Appellee-Cross-Appellant.

OPINION

MINZNER, Justice.

{1} Defendant City of Santa Fe appeals directly to this Court from an adverse judgment in favor of Plaintiff Deanna Nava on her New Mexico Human Rights Act (NMHRA) claim. At trial, Plaintiff alleged her immediate supervisor discriminated against her because of her sex, and Defendant, as her employer, knew of this discrimination and failed to take remedial action. On appeal, Defendant claims that the district court erred in its instructions to the jury and that there was not substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict. Plaintiff cross-appeals claiming that the district court erred by granting Defendant's motion for remittitur, refusing to award statutory interest against Defendant, and reducing her attorney's requested fees. We have jurisdiction in this case pursuant to NMSA 1978, § 28-1-13(C) (1987), which provides for direct appeal to the Supreme Court for claims made under the NMHRA. We affirm the district court on each of the issues raised in this appeal.

I

{2} Plaintiff has been employed by Defendant as a police officer since 1993. In January 1999, one of her first-line supervisors became Sgt. Clarence Gallegos. In July 2000, the Santa Fe police department was reorganized and Plaintiff was reassigned to a different squad. Therefore, she remained under the supervision of Sgt. Gallegos for approximately nineteen months. Plaintiff claims that during this nineteen-month period she was harassed by Sgt. Gallegos on an almost daily basis because of her sex, and this harassment resulted in a hostile work environment. At trial, Plaintiff testified that Sgt. Gallegos checked on her location more than other officers, raised his voice to her, denied her many of the same privileges male officers were afforded, followed her to her house to monitor how long she took on bathroom breaks, assigned rape calls to her even when other officers were closer to the scene of the crime, and threw a file folder at her on one occasion. The jury found for Plaintiff and awarded her $285,000 in damages.

{3} Following the verdict, the district court ruled on several post-trial motions. The district court denied Defendant's motion for a new trial, but granted a remittitur of the jury's verdict to $90,250. The district court also refused to award Plaintiff post-judgment interest because Defendant, as a political subdivision of the State, was exempt from paying such interest. Finally, although Plaintiff's attorney sought statutory attorney's fees at a rate of $230 per hour, the district court determined that $200 per hour was the more appropriate rate. Both parties have appealed to this Court.

II

{4} Plaintiff bases her NMHRA sexual harassment claim on a hostile work environment theory. The NMHRA, NMSA 1978, § 28-1-7(A) (2004), provides that "[i]t is an unlawful discriminatory practice for an employer ... to discriminate in matters of compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment against any person otherwise qualified because of ... sex." This language from the NMHRA tracks Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (2000). For this reason, "[w]hen considering claims under the NMHRA, we may look at federal civil rights adjudication for guidance in interpreting the NMHRA." Ocana v. Am. Furniture Co., 2004-NMSC-018, ¶ 23, 135 N.M. 539, 91 P.3d 58; see also Smith v. FDC Corp., 109 N.M. 514, 517, 787 P.2d 433, 436 (1990)

.

{5} The United States Supreme Court has interpreted the phrase "compensation, terms, conditions or privileges" in Title VII as prohibiting inter alia discriminatory conduct by employers that "has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment." Meritor Savs. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 64-65, 106 S.Ct. 2399, 91 L.Ed.2d 49 (1986) (quoting 29 CFR § 1604.11(a)(3) (1985)). Recently, in Ocana, we gave the same interpretation to the NMHRA: "sexual harassment is actionable under a hostile work environment theory when the offensive conduct becomes so severe and pervasive that it alters the conditions of employment in such a manner that the workplace is transformed into a hostile and abusive environment for the employee." 2004-NMSC-018, ¶ 24, 135 N.M. 539, 91 P.3d 58.

{6} The elements of a hostile work environment claim against an employer have generally been stated as:

[1] the employee was subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment;
[2] the harassment occurred because of the employee's sex;
[3] the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive work environment affecting a term, condition, or privilege of employment, and;
[4] the employer knew, or should have known, of the harassment and failed to take remedial action.

Lawrence Solotoff & Henry S. Kramer, Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in the Work Place § 3.04[2], at 3-31 (2004). The discriminatory conduct does not have to be overtly sexual in order to constitute harassment; rather, a hostile work environment claim may arise from disparate treatment on the basis of sex. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 80-81, 118 S.Ct. 998, 140 L.Ed.2d 201 (1998)

(noting that a hostile work environment claim could be established by "direct comparative evidence about how the alleged harasser treated members of both sexes in a mixed-sex workplace"); Penry v. Federal Home Loan Bank of Topeka, 155 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir.1998) ("[A]ctionable conduct is not limited to behavior motivated by sexual desire."). With these general principles in mind, we turn to the specific issues raised by this appeal.

A

{7} The first issue we address involves the instructions given by the trial court to the jury. The jury was instructed on each element of Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim; however, Defendant argues that the jury was improperly instructed that it need only find that "plaintiff's sex was a motivating factor in the treatment of the plaintiff" and that Plaintiff was "not required to prove that her sex was the Defendant City of Santa Fe's sole motivation or even the primary motivation." Defendant argues that instead, the jury should have been instructed that any harassment was "because of her sex" and the harassment would not have occurred "but for" the complainant's sex. While not quite stated in these terms, Defendant appears to be arguing that Plaintiff's sex must have been either the sole or primary motivation for any harassment. Thus, we must consider whether the mixed-motives instruction given to the jury in this case was appropriate.

{8} Turning to federal law for guidance on this issue, we note that Congress has recognized that there are often multiple causes for adverse employment actions. Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m) provides that "an unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice." (Emphasis added). Thus, it appears under federal law that an employee is not required to prove that his or her sex was the sole or primary motivation for the suffered harassment. The employee must only establish that the adverse employment action was motivated in part by an illegitimate factor, such as sex. {9} The NMHRA does not have a comparable provision to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m); however, we did recently note that the purpose behind the NMHRA is to prohibit all forms of employment sexual harassment. Ocana, 2004-NMSC-018, ¶ 23, 135 N.M. 539, 91 P.3d 58. Given this purpose, we believe the Legislature did not intend for an employer to be relieved from an otherwise valid hostile work environment claim simply because other factors aside from sex contributed to making the employee's work environment hostile and abusive. Cf. Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of Torts § 171, at 416 (2001) ("It would be a windfall to the negligent defendants if they were to escape liability for the harm merely because another tortfeasor's negligence was also sufficient to cause the same harm."). We hold that the mixed-motives jury instruction given in this case was not erroneous. We now turn to Defendant's next argument, whether there was substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict.

B

{10} In reviewing the jury verdict for substantial evidence, "we examine the record for relevant evidence such that `a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.' "Smith, 109 N.M. at 519, 787 P.2d at 438 (quoting Toltec Int'l, Inc. v. Village of Ruidoso, 95 N.M. 82, 84, 619 P.2d 186, 188 (1980)). "We resolve disputed facts in favor of the party prevailing below, indulging all reasonable inferences in favor of the verdict and disregarding contrary inferences, and we do not independently weigh conflicting evidence." Id. Defendant argues that the jury verdict for Plaintiff must be reversed because there was neither substantial evidence that the harassment was "because of" Plaintiff's sex nor substantial evidence that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to support a hostile work environment claim.

{11} As for whether there was sufficient evidence the harassment was "because of" Plaintiff's sex, a review of the record reveals that numerous witnesses at trial testified that Sgt. Gallegos treated the female officers differently from the way he treated the male officers. Plaintiff testified that Sgt. Gallegos would ask for...

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