People often ask whether a particular situation is grounds for an employment lawsuit. Both employers and employees often misunderstand what is and what is not covered by the law. In New Mexico, employers with 4 or more employees typically cannot discriminate or harass an employee based on their race, age, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, physical or mental handicap, or serious medical condition. For employers with 15 or more employees, they also cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. For employers with 50 or more employees, they also cannot discriminate on grounds of spousal affiliation. These characteristics that the law protects are called an employee’s “protected status.” An employee who is female, minority, over 40 and disabled would have four different protected statuses!
In addition to the characteristics that the law protects, an employee is also protected from wrongful termination that violates either a contract or New Mexico public policy. Employees of governmental entities and agencies, such as the state, counties, municipalities and agencies, are also protected under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
That all sounds fine, but what does it actually mean? Discrimination includes refusing to hire someone, firing someone, refusing to promote them, demoting them, or treating them differently in terms of pay, hours, terms, or conditions of employment. The term “hostile working environment” refers to discrimination in the form of harassment. A hostile working environment is serious, and is not usually found to exist when there is just a single comment or situation that makes an employee uncomfortable or upset. The exceptions would be single events that are extreme, such as sexual assault, physical assault and other expressions of harassment or discrimination that a jury may consider to be “severe.” Over the years, courts have given us many examples of what is and what is not harassment and/or discrimination based on the facts of each case. A knowledgeable attorney should be familiar with what has been clearly defined and what may fall in a grey area needing further research or testing in a court of law.
Workplace law is very technical, and these cases are decided based on the facts and situations unique to each case. When there is no legal protection that applies, at will employees can be terminated or their jobs changed for any reason or no reason at all.