Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

The $44M judgment that could change how punitive damages are awarded when civil rights are violated • Source New Mexico

The civil trial in a case involving a former Las Cruces High School student and a teacher convicted of inappropriately touching her could establish a new standard for how much victims are compensated when their civil rights are violated.

And in this case in particular, legal experts say the financial award is doing more to bring the victims justice than the criminal system.

In March, a federal jury awarded the student $44 million following their civil trial seeking damages against Patrick Howard, a former agricultural sciences teacher and Future Farmers of America advisor at Las Cruces High School. Howard taught 26 years in the Southern New Mexico community.

Civil and criminal cases filed against Howard stemmed from complaints made by several female students who told Las Cruces police that the teacher touched them inappropriately on numerous occasions. 

After reporting Howard to school administrators and law enforcement in February 2018, both criminal and civil court documents state the victims were bullied and harassed by fellow students who supported Howard.

Patrick Howard in court

Criminal charges were filed at the state level against Howard in February 2018. He was charged with three third-degree counts of criminal sexual contact with a minor and one count of battery, a petty misdemeanor. 

In May 2021, Howard pled guilty to just one count of criminal sexual contact with a minor and the count of battery. He was not sentenced to additional jail time. 

Howard was given a conditional discharge, meaning he is not formally convicted of the two criminal charges against him. 

He was instead ordered by Third Judicial District Court Judge Douglas Driggers to undergo five concurrent years of probation, complete 80 hours of community service and complete a sex offender treatment program. He is not required to formally register as a sex offender. 

The former teacher was discharged from probation in March 2024 – two years early – after the court found he had completed community service and the treatment program. The criminal charges were therefore formally dismissed.

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez filed a petition for writ with the state Supreme Court, citing concerns that Third Judicial District Court Judge Douglas Driggers violated the Victim of Crime Act. 

In an announcement on May 10, Torrez questioned the lower court’s decision to terminate Howard’s five-year probationary period after three years. Sex offenders are required by New Mexico law to serve a mandatory five-year probation at minimum.

Third Judicial District Attorney Gerald Beyers also noted that his office was not given enough time to notify the victims before a hearing was held to end Howard’s probation.

And as a result of reporting him, Howard resigned in February 2018, according to Las Cruces Public Schools records. His New Mexico teaching license was not revoked or suspended before his resignation.

Four civil cases filed, three settled before judgment

Six months into 2020, four federal civil cases were filed against Howard and Las Cruces Public Schools. Lawyers claimed Howard violated the teenagers’ civil rights and demanded financial damages be paid to the victims. Plaintiffs were all former high school students Howard taught.

All but one of the cases were settled out of court.

That last case involved the experiences one student had with Howard when she was 15 and 16-years-old. 

In 2024, the jury found in favor of the former student and awarded her $11 million in compensatory damages and $33 million in punitive damages. This is the largest jury verdict in New Mexico awarded on behalf of a victim of educator sexual abuse, according to the victim’s attorney Shannon Kennedy.

Paul Figueroa, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, said he was surprised to see the large amount awarded in this case.

He explained that compensatory damages (in this case the $11 million) are for the victim and “how reprehensible” the conduct they faced. Punitive damages ($33 million in this case) are for the victim too, as well as a tool the court can use to further punish the defendant.

Figeuroa said there is no set method for awarding damages in federal civil rights cases, but reprehensibility and a ratio between the two types of damages (compensatory and punitive) are used as guideposts. 

“The interesting thing about this case is the defendant was found to be criminally liable prior to the civil trial and the court didn’t give him any jail time,” he said. “That to me is extremely interesting because, obviously, criminal courts didn’t find his conduct to be, from a criminal perspective, too bad to warrant jail time. But the civil courts found his conduct to be extremely reprehensible.”

Figueroa added that investigative facts that showed Howard lobbied students to support him and disparage the victims could have been a factor for the jury to determine how reprehensible his actions were.

Ultimately, Figueroa said $44 million in damages for civil rights violations is quite unusual. 

He said cases with the highest damage awards typically involve wrongful death or serious health hazards to the community.

“From that perspective, I guess it does give plaintiffs attorneys who are representing clients who are alleging they were victims of civil rights, they are giving them definitely more ammunition to argue that punitive damages are warranted,” Figueroa said. 

This case could set a new precedent, he said, but only if the amount is upheld. There are still legal processes that must be completed.

Betrayal trauma

Kennedy is one of the attorneys who won the civil case against Howard and Las Cruces Public Schools. 

She explained that she tried a similar case more than 15 years ago. That one involved a first grade child who was sexually assaulted by a substitute teacher. The jury awarded that victim $3 million in combined compensatory and punitive damages. 

“Since that verdict, I’ve been studying this area of law and the psychological damages caused by not only sexual assault, but betrayal trauma,” she said. 

Betrayal trauma is trauma caused by someone the victim has a close relationship with.  

“For the first time, perhaps in federal court in the United States of America, we put on evidence of the combination of the injuries caused by sexual assault with betrayal trauma,” Kennedy said. “And so (Howard’s case is) unique in that way factually because we put on that evidence.”

She added that the legal team used mannequins to demonstrate where Howard touched victims which Kennedy described as a powerful image for the jury.

In a phone interview with Source New Mexico, Kennedy said the verdict, “changes the landscape of these cases, across the United States, in terms of federal civil rights cases on behalf of people who are vulnerable to those public employees in positions of power who will exploit them sexually.”

Howard fought back soon after the judgment.

According to federal court documents, Howard claims the evidence does not support the $11 million in compensatory damages awarded to the victim. He also attributed the amount to “juror passion or prejudice” and the use of testimony of other victims of Howards’ who are not party to the case. 

Court documents filed by his lawyers claim the damages awarded against Howard are excessive and violate his constitutional right to due process.

“Defendant Howard does not dispute that, on the evidence presented at trial, the jury could properly award compensatory damages in a substantial sum, however, an award of $11 million is clearly beyond what the evidence could sustain and should be shocking to the judicial conscience,” Howard’s motion states. 

Howard’s attorney claims the jury was improperly influenced, that the damages awarded reflect a more “egregious” act such as rape and that the punitive damages are “unconstitutionally excessive.”

A hearing on this motion will be held in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico in Las Cruces on May 20. 

Kennedy said she would be shocked if the judge reduced the award in the verdict, emphasizing that this case is a way for the civil court to make up for lack of suitable punishment on the criminal side.

She noted the criminal case against Howard shows the “institutional betrayal” by the criminal justice system against female sexual assault survivors in New Mexico, citing a New York judge’s recent overturning of Harvey Weinstien’s rape conviction as a national example.

“The jurors in the civil justice system in the Patrick Howard case heard the voice of the female students and rendered a verdict to send a message to all educators to teach not to touch their female students,” Kennedy said.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

SUBSCRIBE

Comments are closed.