County will pay $700,000 to settle lawsuit brought by former employee Katie Sanchez

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Presidio County and its treasurer, Frances Garcia, have agreed to settle a civil lawsuit brought against them by former county employee Katie Sanchez. The county will pay $700,000 to Sanchez and her attorney, according to documents obtained through public records requests by The Big Bend Sentinel.

Sanchez worked as Presidio County’s director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) until a majority of county commissioners — including former commissioner Loretto Vasquez and current commissioners Eloy Aranda, Jose Cabezuela and Brenda Bentley — voted in 2019 to remove the department from the county budget, and thus remove Sanchez’s job at the county. 

Sanchez alleged in a suit filed in July 2019 that the county and Garcia had retaliated against her when they abolished her department after she ran unsuccessfully against Garcia for county treasurer in the March 2018 elections — an act she claimed violated her first amendment Constitutional right to run for office without retribution.

Per the settlement agreement, the county will pay Sanchez $407,551.06 and her attorney, John Wenke, $292,448.94 for legal fees, in exchange for Sanchez agreeing to “release, discharge and acquit” the county and Garcia from all of her previous claims against them, and dismiss the lawsuit she brought against them. Sanchez will surrender any rights to future employment in the county and agree not to disparage Garcia any time in the future, while Garcia must not disparage Sanchez.

County Judge Cinderela Guevara, who was serving as judge during the abolition of Sanchez’s department and voted against the move, called the settlement satisfactory for all parties, noting that the case otherwise might drag on for years.

Asked for comment on the case, Garcia said she was advised not to provide one, referring The Big Bend Sentinel to attorneys Amanda Crouch and Jon Mark Hogg of Jackson Walker LLP, who defended the county and Garcia in the suit. Neither could be reached for comment via phone or email before press time.

The Big Bend Sentinel also requested comment from Sanchez directly and through her attorney, Wenke, but did not receive a response, other than confirmation that a settlement agreement had been reached.

Prior to reaching the final settlement agreement, the case was heard at a jury trial in Pecos in July 2021, where attorney Hogg argued on behalf of Garcia and the county, saying Sanchez’s office was eliminated because it was no longer needed. He also claimed that Garcia had no voting power or ability to control the county budget, questioning how she could be at fault for the abolition of Sanchez’s department.

However, testimonies by county employees and emails written by Garcia painted a different picture — one of Garcia working to get commissioners to abolish the OMB and disparaging Sanchez repeatedly. 

The jury offered a resounding and unanimous finding against the county and Garcia, deciding that Sanchez’s run for office against Garcia had motivated the elimination of her department, that there was “retaliatory animus” and that Garcia was not entitled to qualified immunity, a protection for government officials against being personally liable for reasonable damages caused by their job performance.

Jurors unanimously proposed Sanchez be awarded $1 million in compensatory damages and another $1 million in punitive damages from the county and Garcia. However, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Fannin, who has the power to recommend a decrease in the jury’s verdict, said Sanchez could either accept a lower award of $370,362.03 or request another trial solely focused on the award amount.

In the wake of Judge Fannin’s response, Wenke, Sanchez’s attorney, told The Big Bend Sentinel, “I’m not sure what type of message is being sent if a $1 million dollar punitive damage award is reduced to $5,000.” Rather than continuing through the appellate process where the final award could go higher or lower, both parties met for mediation late last year and reached a compromise to pay Sanchez and end the case.

Unlike the jury’s and Fannin’s recommendations, under the newly-reached agreement, Garcia will not be personally responsible for any of the settlement costs, leaving the price to be covered by Presidio County’s insurers, the Texas Association of Counties Risk Pool.

“It’s good news, but it’s still a black eye for the county,” County Attorney Rod Ponton said of the settlement. Ponton expressed concerns that not only would the outcome increase the county’s insurance rates at the expense of taxpayers, it might provoke more employees to file claims against the county. “It will make the county be a target for other people that might think they’ve been unfairly treated by the county,” he said. 

“I just am glad that the county can put it behind us now,” the county attorney said. “It should not have happened, and the county as a public entity needs to treat its employees fairly and not retaliate against them. I hope the county can learn from this.”