On January 18, 2013, a former New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) employee prevailed in the first case to reach trial under the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act (NMWPA). Feliciano v. New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, et al., No. D-101-cv-2010-02008 (First Judicial District Court, State of New Mexico, County of Santa Fe). A jury awarded Aaron Feliciano, a former compliance director of PRC, $355,345 in damages and approximately $250,000 in legal fees. The NMWPA provides for double damages, so Feliciano will receive a total award of approximately $960,000.
Feliciano worked as compliance director in PRC’s Insurance Division. In 2010, Feliciano filed suit under the NMWPA, which provides a private cause of action for employees terminated in retaliation for efforts to expose corruption in state government. He alleged that he was fired in retaliation for voicing concerns over his supervisors’ hiring of political contributors to investigate insurance cases resulting in slow, costly and ineffective investigations. PRC maintained that Feliciano was terminated due to poor job performance and a range of misconduct. Eleven out of twelve jurors sided with Feliciano, finding that he was retaliated against Feliciano for raising the foregoing concerns.
Although this case arose under a state-specific whistleblower statute and concerned allegations against a public employer, it behooves private employers nationwide to note of this significant verdict because similar whistleblower claims are proliferating under a wide range of statutes. Employers also should appreciate that the suit was filed by a compliance officer, as employees in such positions often are tasked with addressing various aspects of whistleblower claims and often possess highly sensitive information that they may, in some cases, attempt to strategically capitalize on it by placing it on the public record through filings in litigation and testimony at trial.