A former city of Española employee has filed a lawsuit against the city government claiming she faced retaliation and other mistreatment after she reported nearly $18,000 missing from the city’s utilities vault.
Now-former utilities department billing supervisor Nadine Trujillo filed a complaint for violations of the Whistleblower Protection Act July 19 in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe. The suit names the city of Española and former city manager David Valdez as defendants.
“Defendants’ retaliation consisted not only of Valdez intimidating and harassing Ms. Trujillo with respect to her City employment,” Trujillo’s attorney Trent Howell wrote in the complaint. “But also grew to include coercive tactic from (Española Police Department) officers.”
Howell wrote that Department officers told Trujillo she was the “only suspect,” and that the treatment culminated in Trujillo’s “constructive discharge.” Constructive discharge is a term used to designate when an employee resigns due to an intolerable work environment created by an employer.
Trujillo submitted her letter of resignation May 31 in an email to Human Resources Director Sally Baxter. Mayor Javier Sanchez and City Attorney AJ Salazar also received copies of the letter.
In the letter Trujillo wrote that she was leaving her position because of a “hostile work environment” created by Valdez.
“I feel I am being forced into these actions in order to keep my name in tact (sic),” Trujillo wrote. “I was yelled at by Mr. Valdez in front of City Clerk Melissa Velasquez and Public Works Director Steven Trujillo. I was told I was not a leader and that I would not be listened to and sent home until Monday when he could figure out what to do with me.”
She also wrote that Valdez avoided utilities staff and at one point offered her an opportunity to become an administrative assistant for Xavier Martinez. Later, she wrote, the same position was offered to Utilities Cashier Anna Hall.
“(Hall) was also told that (Valdez) did not want any original staff members to remain in utilities, not even Danielle,” Trujillo wrote.
Trujillo included the results of a polygraph test with her resignation as evidence that she was not responsible for the missing utilities money.
“In the coming weeks my attorneys will be in contact, because while I recognize that I am resigning I completely feel it has been forced upon me in the weeks leading up to today,” Trujillo wrote.
A polygraph test included as an exhibit in the lawsuit states that Trujillo showed “no significant reactions indicative of deception,” meaning that according to the polygraph test, she did not take the money from the city utilities vault.
Some studies estimate polygraph tests have about a 90 percent accuracy rate, but the results are inadmissible in many courts.
A timeline of events included in the suit shows Valdez placed Trujillo on administrative leave one week after she met with Department officers.
“With Valdez occupying one of the highest Española offices; with EPD appearing to protect Valdez, declining to investigate (in) good faith, and expressing intention only to focus on Ms. Trujillo as a suspect unless or until she confessed;” Howell wrote. “And with Valdez and Española simultaneously pursuing employment actions to frame Ms. Trujillo for workplace misconduct and track her for termination, Ms. Trujillo ultimately saw — as any reasonable person would under such pressure — no alternative but to resign her position under duress.”
The suit seeks both general and compensatory damages including back pay, front pay, lost benefits and reinstatement as an employee. Trujillo is also asking the court for an award for emotional distress and attorney’s fees.
Mayor Javier Sanchez declined to comment on current litigation.