Peasnall v. Curry Cnty. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs, A-1-CA-37401

Case DateSeptember 27, 2021
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico

WESTON PEASNALL, Plaintiff-Appellant,

CURRY COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS, a political subdivision existing under the law of the State of New Mexico, Defendant-Appellee.

No. A-1-CA-37401

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

September 27, 2021

Corrections to this opinion/decision not affecting the outcome, at the Court's discretion, can occur up to the time of publication with NM Compilation Commission. The Court will ensure that the electronic version of this opinion/decision is updated accordingly in Odyssey.


Christian P. Christensen Portales, NM Eric D. Dixon Portales, NM for Appellant

Atwood, Malone, Turner & Sabin, P.A. Bryan Evans Quincy J. Perales Roswell, NM for Appellee



{¶1} Plaintiff Weston Peasnall appeals the judgment entered by the district court in favor of Defendant Curry County Board of County Commissioners following a jury trial on Plaintiff's complaint alleging violations of the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act (the WPA), NMSA 1978, §§ 10-16C-1 to -6 (2010). He raises issues related to the jury instructions and contests two of the district court's evidentiary rulings. We hold that the district court erred with respect to the special verdict form provided to the jury; therefore, we reverse and remand for a new trial. In light of this, it is unnecessary that we reach Defendant's remaining contentions. However, we exercise our discretion to address the district court's exclusion of video footage proffered by Plaintiff and testimony related to its contents, as this question is likely to recur on remand. We affirm in this respect.


{¶2} The allegations in Plaintiff's complaint stem from his employment at the Curry County Detention Center (the Detention Center), where he was promoted to the position of sergeant. About six months after his promotion, Plaintiff reviewed video footage of a tasing incident at the Detention Center. In Plaintiff's estimation, the video footage depicted violations of county policies.

{¶3} Before reviewing the video footage, Plaintiff prepared an initial report regarding the tasing incident. Plaintiff stated that, after reviewing the video footage, he went to his supervisor and requested to amend his initial report to reflect his belief that county policy regarding excessive use of force had been violated. Plaintiff alleged that his supervisor turned him away without allowing an amendment.

{¶4} Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff was demoted from the position of sergeant. Plaintiff described this as an act of "retaliation" due to his desire to amend his initial report on the tasing incident to reflect his view that county policies had been violated. Plaintiff alleged that, following his demotion, the working environment became so intolerable that he had no options other than resignation.

{¶5} Prior to trial, Defendant moved the district court to exclude the video of the tasing incident from evidence and to preclude Plaintiff from eliciting testimony regarding Plaintiff's claim that the Detention Center operated under a pervasive system of favoritism and retaliation. The district court excluded the video of the tasing incident, testimony related to its contents, and testimony regarding the operation of the Detention Center.

{¶6} Plaintiff submitted proposed jury instructions, which included the Uniform Jury Instruction for retaliatory discharge and special verdict forms. The district court refused the retaliatory discharge instruction and the special verdict forms proposed by Plaintiff, opting instead to use the special verdict form tendered by Defendant, with slight but significant modifications.

{¶7} Following deliberations, the jury returned a special verdict form. In pertinent part, the jury answered "No" to the following question: "Was Plaintiff's request to change his report regarding the . . . [t]asing incident the reason Plaintiff was [demoted]?" The district court entered judgment in favor of Defendant. Plaintiff appeals. We reserve further discussion of the pertinent facts for our analysis.


{¶8} Plaintiff argues that (1) one of the special verdict forms submitted to the jury misstated the law; (2) the district court improperly excluded the video of the detainee's tasing and testimony related to its contents; and (3) the district court improperly excluded testimony concerning operation of the Detention Center.

I. Jury Instructions

A. Standard of Review

{¶9} "We review jury instructions de novo, seeking to determine whether the instructions correctly stated the law and were supported by the evidence presented at trial." Lopez v. Devon Energy Prod. Co., L.P., 2020-NMCA-033, ¶ 9, 468 P.3d 887, cert. denied, 2020-NMCERT-___ (No. S-1-SC-38161, Apr. 28, 2020). Our inquiry centers on whether the instructions complained of would have caused confusion or misdirection among reasonable jurors. Mikeska v. Las Cruces Reg'l Med. Ctr., LLC, 2016-NMCA-068, ¶ 23, 388 P.3d 266.

B. The Special Verdict Form Was Legally Erroneous and Requires Reversal

{¶10} Plaintiff complains of the propriety of the jury instructions. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the district court erred by failing to instruct the jury pursuant to UJI 13-2304 NMRA ("Retaliatory discharge"), and that a question on the special verdict form provided to the jury contained a legal misstatement. Defendant maintains that the jury instructions and special verdict form were legally sufficient, and that, even if there was error, it was harmless. We agree with Plaintiff's contention that the special verdict form was legally erroneous.

{¶11} "An instruction is correct, and thus proper to submit to a jury, when the instruction is consistent with the law and articulates fairly, completely, and succinctly the relevant law applicable to the facts[.]" Mireles v. Broderick, 1994-NMSC-041, ¶ 15, 117 N.M. 445, 872 P.2d 863 (citation omitted). "Trial courts are required to instruct the jury on the applicable rules of law using the Uniform Jury Instructions, unless the instructions are waived by the parties." Benavidez v. City of Gallup, 2007-NMSC-026, ¶ 19, 141 N.M. 808, 161 P.3d 853; see also Rule 1-051(A) NMRA ("The trial judge shall instruct the jury in the language of the Uniform Jury Instructions on the applicable rules of law[.]"); Cowan v. Powell, 1993-NMCA-075, ¶ 7, 115 N.M. 603, 856 P.2d 251 (stating that the district court is to give the Uniform Jury Instructions "without substitution or substantive modification"); Sutherlin v. Fenenga, 1991-NMCA-011, ¶ 17, 111 N.M. 767, 810 P.2d 353 (stating that the district court is to give the Uniform Jury Instructions "when justified by the facts, and a refusal to give such instructions when accompanied by the slightest prejudice to a party constitutes reversible error"). When applicable Uniform Jury Instructions are not available, such as in WPA actions, instructions outside of the Uniform Jury Instructions, or modified Uniform Jury Instructions, may be requested. See Mac Tyres, Inc....

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