Ronald Sanchez, who was fired from his state job after a hacker connected his government email address to the controversial dating site Ashley Madison, is challenging his dismissal on grounds of a double standard.
He says he never used the Ashley Madison site, and that he and other information technology staff members were held to a higher standard than other employees when it came to email use, violating his constitutional right to due process.
Sanchez, who lives in Alamogordo, worked as a computer technician at the Administrative Office of the Courts for 11 years before his name showed up on a list of public employees who had accounts on the Canadian-based dating site marketed to unfaithful spouses. At the time of his firing, he made $34 an hour to work on computers at courts in the southeastern quadrant of the state.
Though Sanchez denied registering at the Ashley Madison site, the connection subjected his email to scrutiny by his supervisors. This revealed he had also used his work email for saving, sending and receiving other personal material, including sometimes sexually explicit messages that contained vulgar humor or were racist or sexist.
He and a coworker, whose email address was also linked to the dating site, were given an option to resign or be fired. The coworker quit. Sanchez was fired and an internal personnel board upheld his dismissal.
Sanchez petitioned the state District Court in Santa Fe to review that decision on grounds of unequal treatment. Sanchez said that Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, testified during his administrative hearing that Sanchez and other information technology employees were held to a higher standard than other workers.
“The problem is everybody was doing it, and he was held to a higher standard without telling him,” said Sanchez’s attorney, Robert Beauvais. “He has 11 years of exemplary conduct. Everybody and his dog was doing the same thing he was, including four judges, and yet they fire him for that and we thought that wasn’t fair.”
In his court pleading, Beauvais compares Pepin’s unwritten higher standard policy to the “double secret probation” that a dean uses to try to banish the Delta House fraternity from campus in the 1978 movie Animal House, starring John Belushi.
“While the movie is parody,” Beauvais wrote in a brief, “the arbitrary and unlawful conduct of the law-trained administrator of the N.M. Administrative Office of the Courts under color of state law had serious and unlawful consequences.”
Assistant Attorney General Timothy Williams this month responded on behalf of the Administrative Office of the Courts, saying that Sanchez was not held to a higher standard and that his email use was not typical of other court employees.
“Petitioner has failed to submit any evidence of disparate treatment,” Williams wrote in his response. “To the contrary, the record reflects that only two AOC employees were audited because of the ‘Ashley Madison Email Scandal’ and the other employee ‘did not have any kind of content like this but merely had social networking sites.’ ”
Thus, Williams wrote, management determined that the nature and extent of Sanchez’s violations were “so egregious that his actions constituted cause for termination.”
Pepin said Monday he couldn’t comment much on the case because it is in active litigation and involves personnel issues. But, he said, “the facts speak for themselves,” and he is confident that Sanchez’s firing would be upheld.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 505-986-3068 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @phaedraann.