The New Mexico Supreme Court recently clarified individual liability under the state's whistleblower laws.
The New Mexico Supreme Court recently clarified an important component of the state's Whistleblower Protection Act. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the court ruled that the act shields public officeholders from liability in whistleblower lawsuits while leaving open the liability of the offices they represent. The ruling narrows the circumstances under which a whistleblower lawsuit can be filed, although it could prove beneficial for whistleblowers in other ways. The case stems from allegations against a former New Mexico Secretary of State.
Individual liability limited
The issue at question was whether a public officeholder could be held liable as an individual in a whistleblower lawsuit. The court ruled that public employees launching whistleblower lawsuits cannot sue individual government officials. They can only sue government agencies, commissions, branches of government, boards, or officials operating in their public roles.
As the Las Cruces Sun-News reports, the case stems from a controversy surrounding two former employees of a former New Mexico Secretary of State. Those employees alleged that the former Secretary of State had misused public funds and had urged employees to campaign for her reelection. While the FBI was investigating those allegations, the two employees were fired, which led them to file the lawsuit against the former Secretary of State. Under the new ruling, the whistleblower lawsuit can proceed, but it will be against the Office of the Secretary of State rather than the Secretary of State as an individual.
What it means for whistleblowers
The case is expected to have a significant impact on whistleblower cases throughout New Mexico, especially those involving public employees. The downside of the ruling is that it limits the action that can be brought against individual employers by whistleblowers. However, the ruling also means that individual whistleblowers can still bring forward whistleblower lawsuits against a government office even if the public official holding that office has passed away. Additionally, the ruling may lead to the state government being more proactive in ensuring managers are more careful in how they treat their employees.
The Whistleblower Protection Act was adopted by the state in 2010 in response to an ethics scandal involving allegations of pay-to-play behavior. The law was crafted so that public employees would feel as though they could come forward with concerns about ethics violations without fear of termination or reprisal.
Employees should be able to report ethics violations without being subjected to punishment. Unfortunately, retaliation against whistleblowers continues to happen. For those who have been unfairly treated as a whistleblower or who have another employment issue they are concerned about then it is important to reach out to an employment law attorney. An experienced attorney can fight for the rights of employees, including by helping them pursue compensation that they may be entitled to.