In Garcia v. Hatch Valley Public Schools, the New Mexico Supreme Court recently examined whether a plaintiff has a relatively heightened evidentiary burden in proving a reverse discrimination claim brought under the New Mexico Human Rights Act. The court held that a plaintiff in a “so-called reverse discrimination case” has the same evidentiary burden as does a “minority” plaintiff asserting a claim of discrimination under the Act. The decision in Garcia impacts all companies with four or more employees in New Mexico.

Background

The plaintiff was employed by Hatch Valley Public Schools (HVPS) as a school bus driver between 2008 and 2010. HVPS declined to renew plaintiff’s contract for the 2010-2011 school year “due to an unsatisfactory evaluation.”

After exhausting her administrative remedies, the plaintiff timely filed suit alleging claims of discrimination and retaliation under the Act, Section 28-1-7(A), (I), based on her race and national origin. She later narrowed her complaint to a claim of discrimination under the Act based on her national origin, which she characterized as “German” and “NOT Hispanic.” The plaintiff alleged she was treated differently than other workers because she was “NOT Hispanic,” and that her coworkers who were “ALL Hispanic” received more favorable treatment.

The district court granted HVPS’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the uncontroverted evidence showed that the plaintiff’s supervisor was unaware that plaintiff was of German descent and therefore the plaintiff’s national origin could not have been a motivating factor in the termination of her employment. The district court concluded in the alternative that the plaintiff had failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact to establish that HVPS’s stated legitimate business reason for the termination of her employment was pretextual.

The court of appeals reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment, concluding that the plaintiff had established a prima facie case of discrimination and had raised a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of pretext, citing evidence of a Hispanic employee who reportedly had a dirty bus but who was not fired. That court held the ultimate question of whether HVPS had discriminated against the plaintiff was for the jury to decide.

The New Mexico Supreme Court agreed to review three issues: (1) whether the court of appeals erred in analyzing the plaintiff’s claim for national origin discrimination as a claim for reverse racial discrimination; (2) if the court of appeals properly analyzed the plaintiff’s national origin discrimination claim as a reverse racial discrimination claim, whether the court erred in holding that so-called reverse discrimination plaintiffs do not have to meet a higher standard under the Act; and (3) whether the court of appeals erred in reversing the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of HVPS.

With respect to the first issue, the New Mexico Supreme Court rejected HVPS’s argument that the court of appeals improperly analyzed the plaintiff’s national origin discrimination claim as a racial discrimination claim. The court reviewed the Act, Title VII, and the federal courts’ inconsistent interpretations of national origin and racial discrimination under Title VII. Based on that review, the New Mexico Supreme Court held that terms like race and national origin, as well as related terms, like ancestry and ethnicity, often overlap, even to the point of being factually indistinguishable. The New Mexico Supreme Court concluded that the precise label that the plaintiff chose to describe her claim was less important than her consistent allegations that HVPS treated her differently than it did her Hispanic coworkers because she was not Hispanic.

Regarding the second issue, the court noted that the court of appeals took a “significant detour” into the issue of so-call “reverse” discrimination under federal law, an issue that was not raised or briefed by the parties in the district court or on appeal. The court of appeals took it upon itself to answer whether the Act and New Mexico case law place a higher evidentiary burden on a plaintiff who does not belong to a racial minority. After reviewing in detail the various approaches taken by federal courts, the court of appeals concluded that it would analyze a reverse discrimination claim as it would analyze any racial discrimination claim.

In its opinion, the New Mexico Supreme Court expressly disavowed any reliance on reverse discrimination cases in analyzing a claim under the Act. The court noted that the plain language of the Act does not distinguish between particular races, religions, colors, national origins, ancestries, sexes, physical or mental handicaps or serious medical conditions. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that, under the plain language of the Act, its protections and requirements apply equally to all plaintiffs, regardless of their minority or majority status.

With respect to the final issue, the court found that the court of appeals erred in reversing the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of HVPS. The court reviewed the burden-shifting methodology adopted by the lower court for use where a plaintiff has not offered direct evidence of intentional discrimination. To establish discrimination in a termination case, the plaintiff must show: (1) that she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was qualified to continue in her position; (3) her employment was terminated; and (4) her position was filled by someone not a member of the protected class. The court remarked that the fourth element could be established with evidence that she was dismissed purportedly for misconduct nearly identical to that engaged in by one outside of the protected class who was nonetheless retained. Finding that the plaintiff failed to come forward with evidence to establish the fourth element of her prima facie claim as modified, the New Mexico Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Practical Application for Companies with New Mexico Employees

The Garcia decision provides guidance to companies that have employees in New Mexico. When an employee asserts a claim of discrimination under the Act, that claim should be taken as seriously whether the employee’s claim is based on being discriminated against as a minority member or the reverse (discriminated against for not being a minority member). The burden of proof of such a claim is the same in both cases.