New Mexico Wrongful Termination Laws

Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In New Mexico, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can generally be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.

But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. For example, if your New Mexico employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination.

Every state’s laws on wrongful termination are different. This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your New Mexico employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of New Mexico employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your claims, speak to an experienced New Mexico employment lawyer. To learn more about New Mexico employment law, contact the office of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.

Discriminatory Firing

Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only employers with a minimum number of employees must comply with these laws. Most types of discrimination are prohibited once an employer has at least 15 employees. However, for age discrimination the minimum is 20 employees, and for citizenship status discrimination the minimum is four employees.

New Mexico law prohibits employers with four or more employees from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (40 and older), disability, genetic information, and serious medical condition. Employers with 15 or more employees may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Employers with 50 or more employees may not discriminate based on marital status.

These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company’s HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. Likewise, your employer cannot fire you for participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (no matter who made the complaint), testifying in court, or making other efforts to stop discriminatory practices.

Before filing a discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, you must file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. The New Mexico Human Rights Bureau enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; its offices are in Santa Fe. In many cases, state fair employment practices agencies will record your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. However, you should check to make sure. If not, you may also have to file a complaint with the EEOC; you can find contact information for the nearest office at the EEOC’s Field Offices page.

Breach of Contract

If you have a written employment contract promising you job security, you are not an at-will employee. New Mexico also recognizes employment contracts based on oral promises or statements in an employee handbook that create a reasonable expectation that an employee would continue to be employed. For example, if your employee handbook states that employees will be fired only for good cause, your employer cannot fire you without a legitimate reason (such as misconduct or poor performance).

Wage and Hour Issues

New Mexico employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $7.50 per hour. Under federal and New Mexico law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. Although some states require employers to offer meal or rest breaks, New Mexico does not. However, under federal law, employers who choose to offer breaks of 20 minutes or less must generally pay employees for that time. Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break. It is illegal for New Mexico employers to fire employees for filing wage claims, exercising rights under wage and hour laws, or assisting another person in doing so.

Time Off Work

State and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. Employers may not discipline or fire workers for exercising these rights. In New Mexico, these rights include:

  • Military leave. Under federal law, employees have the right to take up to five years of leave to serve in the military, with the right to be reinstated when they return to work. (This law also prohibits discrimination against employees based on their military service, protects employees from discharge without good cause for up to one year after they return from military duty, and provides other protections; see Nolo’s article Taking Military Leave for more information.) Under New Mexico law, members of the U.S. Armed Forces, National Guard, or organized reserve may take unpaid leave for military service, with reinstatement when service is complete. Once reinstated, an employee may not be fired without cause for one year. New Mexico also prohibits discrimination against employees because of their membership in the National Guard.
  • Jury duty. In New Mexico, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury service, and employers may not threaten or coerce them into refusing to serve. Employers may not require employees to use sick leave, vacation, or other paid time off for jury duty. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury duty may be subject to criminal sanctions.
  • Voting. Under New Mexico law, employees are entitled to paid leave to vote, including in Indian nation, tribal, or pueblo elections. An employee is entitled to two hours off, unless the employee’s workday begins more than two hours after the polls open, or ends more than three hours before the polls close.
  • Family and medical leave. New Mexico employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for a serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, to care for a new child, or to handle certain practical matters arising out of a family member’s military service. Employees can take up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who is seriously injured while serving in the military. Employees who take FMLA leave must be reinstated to the same position once their leave is over. To learn more, see Nolo’s FMLA page.
  • Domestic violence leave. All employers in New Mexico must provide employees with up to 14 days of unpaid time each year to handle practical matters relating to domestic violence, such as getting a protective order, meeting with law enforcement officials, or consulting with an attorney.

Other State Claims

  • Workers' compensation. Employers may not retaliate against an employee who exercises his or her rights under workers' compensation laws.
  • Workplace safety. Employers are prohibited from firing or otherwise retaliating against employees who make workplace safety complaints or participate in investigations or legal proceedings regarding such violations.

What to Do Next

If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a New Mexico employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of your claims. A lawyer can also inform you of other state or local claims that you may have in addition to those listed above. Whether you want to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or sue your employer in court, a lawyer can walk you through your options and help you decide on how best to proceed.

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