March 11, 2021

Civil Rights bill heads to Senate floor

A bill that would end qualified immunity as a defense for claims under the state’s Civil Rights Act passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday night with a tie-breaking vote from the chairman of the committee.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, broke the tie on HB 4, the New Mexico Civil Rights bill, when he voted in favor. All three Republicans on the committee voted against the bill, as did Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who said after the vote that he supports the aims of the bill but has concerns with the fact that the bill nearly aligns with the federal civil rights law “and yet there are differences.”

“I think we need to listen to some of the concerns of people who’ve tried to offer constructive commentary about the bill,” Ivey-Soto said.

Testimony from the opposition came largely from county officials who continued to argue that counties will not be able to qualify for liability insurance. The bill allows lawsuits to be brought against a governmental agency if a plaintiff’s constitutional rights, as defined by the New Mexico bill of rights, has been violated. The bill would place a $2 million cap on monetary damages, which includes attorney’s fees but does not allow punitive damages. 

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, one of the sponsors of the bill, said that currently, New Mexico counties and municipalities are able to purchase and maintain liability insurance even though under federal civil rights law, the entities can be sued for any amount of money and for punitive damages as well as monetary damages.

Cervantes said that Doña Ana County had to settle a claim for $15 million when a person’s civil rights were violated while he was in jail. Cervantes was referring to the case of Stephen Slevin who settled in 2013 with the county after two years of being kept in solitary confinement.

“When there’s a cap on damages…you know the boundaries and you know the opening offer will not be above the cap,” Cervantes said, adding that he believed it would lead to faster and better settlements for governmental entities.

Ivey-Soto amended the bill to ensure that a settlement could only be brought “per occurrence.’ Ivey-Soto also tried to amend the bill so that attorney’s fees would be permissive, but not mandatory if the plaintiff is seeking monetary damages. He also tried to amend the bill to limit the statute of limitations to two years instead of three.

Those amendments did not pass. Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, also tried to amend the bill that would have allowed small counties to purchase a type of insurance called reinsurance, but that also failed. Egolf said it wasn’t necessary.

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, asked if students could sue a school district for being suspended.

Egolf said that he and his co-sponsor, Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque and of the Acoma Pueblo, had narrowed the focus of the bill so that only claims that would strictly be a civil rights violation could be brought under this bill if it becomes law.

“When a person brings a civil rights claim, there is a heightened standard of evidence and proof. In civil rights claims, you have to show a higher standard of conduct than simple negligence,” Egolf said.

The bill heads to the Senate floor next. If it passes, it would head back to the House because of the changes made in the Senate process.