By: Jeremiah L. Ritchie
The decision from the New Mexico Supreme Court in Garcia v. Hatch Valley Public Schools, published March 1st of this year, presents several issues for consideration when defending against potential discrimination claims. First, the Court largely dispenses with the technical distinctions between race, ethnicity, and national origin, as long as the plaintiff’s complaint sufficiently apprises the employer of the basis of her claims. Second, the Court confirms that the New Mexico Human Rights Act applies equally to all people, and there is no separate standard for so-called “reverse discrimination” cases. Finally, the Court reiterates that claims under the Human Rights Act require actual evidence of discrimination, and not just general claims of employer unfairness.
In Garcia, a white, non-Hispanic bus driver alleged that the school district discriminated against her on the basis of race and national origin, claiming she was treated differently than her Hispanic coworkers when her contract was not renewed.
Flattening concepts of National Origin, Race, and Ethnicity in favor of notice pleading
The school argued that it could not have discriminated based on race, because white persons and Hispanic persons are both of the Caucasian race. It then argued that the school could not have discriminated based on national origin, because the school was unaware of the driver’s German ancestry. Rather, the school claimed the driver’s complaints were based on “ethnic characteristics” and did not actually constitute racial or national origin discrimination.
The Supreme Court characterized this position as semantic and hypertechnical. The school was on notice from the outset that the driver’s claims were “due to her not being Hispanic.” The Court noted that federal courts have had inconsistent interpretations of race and national origin, and particularly when addressing discrimination between Hispanic and non-Hispanic individuals. Rather than try to parse the various over-lapping terms and their social and historical origins, the Court concluded that the labels that a plaintiff chooses to use in her complaint are not important, so long as the employer is “fully apprised of the basis of her claim.”
No heightened standard for “reverse discrimination”
The Court also expressly rejected prior “reverse discrimination” case law contemplating an elevated standard for majority groups, and held that the Human Rights Act does not distinguish or impose any different standard for certain groups over others. “[U]nder the plain language of the NMHRA, its protections and requirements apply equally to all plaintiffs, regardless of their minority or majority status.”
General unfairness insufficient for discrimination
Despite its seemingly favorable analysis for the driver, the Court ultimately upheld summary judgment for the school because the driver failed to identify a single employee that was retained despite (1) having a similar history of documented performance issues, (2) receiving a similar evaluation, or (3) being terminable at-will. The employee provided several examples of what she felt was unfair treatment, but the Court reiterated that “the NMHRA protects against discriminatory treatment, not against general claims of employer unfairness.”
Garcia v. Hatch Valley Pub. Sch., 2018-NMSC-020