Walton v. NM State Land Office, No. 14-2166 (10th Cir. 2016)Annotate this Case
"This appeal is heavy, very heavy, on procedure." Plaintiff-appellee Peggy Walton worked in the New Mexico State Land Office. She was a political appointee of the elected Republican Land Commissioner, Patrick Lyons. Lyons’s decision not to seek reelection for a third term put plaintiff's job at risk: as a political appointee, a new administration could easily dismiss her. To see that she remained employed with the state, Lyons appointed plaintiff to a senior civil service job where she’d be protected by state law against removal for political reasons. A local television reporter ran a report titled “[c]ronies move up as officials move out” - a report highly critical of Lyons and plaintiff. Another reporter introducing the story aired his view that plaintiff was “distinctly unqualified” for her new job and claimed the hiring was “rigged.” Ray Powell, the newly elected Democratic candidate, dismissed plaintiff. Eight days after making the decision to dismiss her but before announcing it publicly, Powell held a meeting with the land office’s advisory board; "glared across the conference table" at plaintiff, spoke of the television news report denouncing her appointment; and, referring to her in all but name, said he “was concerned about . . . ‘protected employees’” who “for some reason didn’t have to meet the leadership criteria” for their appointments. Plaintiff sued when she was dismissed, arguing that she was a protected civil service employee, and under New Mexico Law, Powell had unlawfully retaliated against her for exercising her right to free political association in violation of the First Amendment and 42 U.S.C. 1983. In reply and at summary judgment. Powell claimed qualified immunity. But the district court denied the motion and set the case for trial. Powell appealed, and finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed denial of summary judgment.