In Ramirez v. State of N.M. Children, Youth and Families Department, filed on April 14, 2016, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a New Mexico National Guard member could assert a claim against the state as the employer under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). The ruling reversed the decision of the New Mexico Court of Appeals, which had held that state employers were immune to such suits, and reinstated the trial court’s judgment and award in favor of the employee. The decision in Ramirez impacts New Mexico State employers, who the New Mexico Supreme Court determined can be held liable under USERRA.

USERRA's Application to New Mexico State Employers

Congress enacted USERRA to encourage non-career military service, minimize disruptions in the lives and communities of those citizen soldiers who serve, and prohibit employers from discriminating against an employee because of his or her service in the “uniformed services.” USERRA specifically defines “employer” to include states. 

The New Mexico Court of Appeals, however, concluded that the War Powers Clause, under which USERRA was enacted, did not authorize Congress to subject the state of New Mexico to private USERRA suits for damages in state courts, absent the state’s consent. The court of appeals further concluded that the New Mexico Legislature had not consented to such suits by enacting New Mexico Statute Statutes Annotated (NMSA) 1978, Section 20-4-7.1(B), which extended USERRA rights to qualifying members of the New Mexico National Guard. Section 20-4-7.1(B) provides: “[t]he rights, benefits and protections of the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 shall apply to a member of the national guard ordered to a federal or state active duty for a period of thirty or more consecutive days.” 

On the subsequent appeal, the New Mexico Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals, holding that by enacting Section 20-4-7.1(B), the Legislature had consented to suits brought against state employers that violate the protections guaranteed by USERRA.

Background

Plaintiff Phillip G. Ramirez joined the New Mexico National Guard in 1991. The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) hired Ramirez as a surveillance officer in 1997. In 2005, Ramirez was deployed to Iraq and then Kuwait. He returned to New Mexico approximately one year after he was first deployed and resumed his employment with the CYFD on January 2, 2007. Within a few months of his return, Ramirez’s relationship with his supervisors purportedly deteriorated. The supervisors allegedly harassed and reprimanded Ramirez for being insubordinate. CYFD terminated Ramirez’s employment on May 8, 2008.

The Litigation

Shortly after his termination, Ramirez filed suit in state court against CYFD, the former secretary of CYFD and Ramirez’s supervisors, alleging a USERRA claim for monetary relief and other claims arising under federal and state law. CYFD moved to dismiss the USERRA claim on the grounds that, as a state agency, it was immune to USERRA claims brought by private individuals. The district court did not specifically rule on that motion, but commenced a jury trial on Ramirez’s claims, including his USERRA claim. During trial, CYFD moved for a directed verdict with respect to the USERRA claim. The district court denied that motion. The jury found that Ramirez’s military service was a motivating factor for the adverse employment actions taken by CYFD and returned a verdict in his favor, awarding him $36,000 in damages for lost earnings. The district court entered the judgment and award in favor of Ramirez.

CYFD appealed and the court of appeals reversed the district court's decision. In a divided opinion, the court of appeals held that CYFD, as a state agency, was immune to Ramirez’s USERRA claim.

The New Mexico Supreme Court, however, disagreed. The state supreme court noted that any waiver of the state’s sovereign immunity must be clear and unambiguous. The court examined both the text and the purpose of NMSA 1978, Section 20-4-7.1(B), to determine whether the New Mexico Legislature intended to consent to suit in its own courts. The court opined that by enacting this statute, the Legislature provided that members of the New Mexico National Guard who are ordered to active duty for at least 30 consecutive days will benefit from every right that USERRA creates. The court found two of those rights to be relevant in the instant case: (1) the right of members of a uniformed service not to be denied any benefit of employment on the basis of their membership in a uniformed service; and (2) the private right of action for damages against a state employer to remedy violations of USERRA’s substantive antidiscrimination protections. The Supreme Court found that Section 20-4-7.1(B) had adopted the rights guaranteed by USERRA without limitation, including these two rights, and concluded that the Legislature consented to private USERRA suits for damages against state employers.

Practical Application for State Employers

While this case applies specifically to New Mexico State employers, it demonstrates that state laws adopting USERRA for state National Guard members can be broadly construed to apply to all state entities. State employers should be cognizant of the rights conveyed by USERRA on members of the uniformed services and understand that they may be subject to suit for damages if any of those rights are denied or violated.