Taos County has settled a lawsuit by a former sheriff’s deputy who said he was fired for developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Joseph Peralta was terminated from the Taos County Sheriff’s Office while on unpaid leave following his diagnosis, which he said was the direct result of job-related trauma.
The former sergeant said this week he hopes his case will lead to more support for first responders grappling with anxiety and depression.
“Over years, it just compiles and compiles,” Peralta told The Taos News Tuesday (Dec. 2), recounting a career in law enforcement that began in 1995.
A lawsuit against the county filed earlier this year claimed he was party to “innumerable harrowing episodes,” such as recovering the body of a friend who jumped from the Río Grande Gorge Bridge and watching a small child he attempted to save burn to death in a car.
Peralta began to experience insomnia, nightmares, lack of concentration and social withdrawal, according to documents filed as part of the lawsuit in Eighth Judicial District Court.
“One day, everything hit me at once,” he said, explaining he took time off beginning in Aug. 2011 to grapple with his anxiety and was diagnosed with PTSD the following month.
The Taos County Sheriff’s Office sergeant was reportedly granted further unpaid leave after using his sick days.
In Feb. 2012, Peralta claims he was granted an additional stint of unpaid leave from Feb. 23 to Aug. 23, 2012.
Peralta was fired June 7, 2012, however.
In response to the lawsuit, a lawyer representing the county suggested his termination was a clerical error.
Officials “inadvertently mis-calendared” his leave, allowing for only four months leave instead of six granted to him, according to court documents.
In a meeting to discuss his firing with Sheriff Miguel Romero and human resources director Brent Jaramillo, Aug. 9, Peralta was allegedly told the termination was an error but that his position had been filled and he could no longer work in the sheriff’s office, his lawsuit said.
An attorney representing the county, Carlos Quiñones, claimed government officials acted in good faith but merely erred in “calendaring” Peralta’s leave.
Peralta said Tuesday (Dec. 2) he had been surprised by his termination, noting he had risen to the rank of sergeant during years of service at the sheriff’s office and received a recognition from Taos County Crime Stoppers months before being fired.
“I didn’t know what I’d done wrong,” he said.
Peralta’s lawyer, John Day, claimed his termination constituted discrimination.
“It was easier to fire him than face up to the reality,” he said.
Speaking to The Taos News this week, Peralta said every day at work seemed to bring something that ripped his heart out.
The sergeant claims he did not receive much support from his employer, however, and that he needed time off to grapple with his diagnosis.
“The suicide rate is pretty high for this line of work and I could have been another statistic,” he said.
Family saw him through the toughest moments of his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, Peralta added, claiming the sheriff’s office did not have any policies or procedures in place to care for personnel involved in critical incidents.
Romero told The Taos News deputies are provided with the telephone number for a counseling hotline but suggested more could be done to support first responders who experience traumatic incidents.
“They see a lot of stuff other people don’t see,” the sheriff said Wednesday (Dec.3). “What should be done or what I would do is if a doctor is seeing them, they should take leave.”
Romero declined to discuss Peralta’s case, citing privacy policies. Filed Feb. 28, the lawsuit was removed to U.S. District Court. A settlement was reportedly reached last month.
Terms of Peralta’s settlement with the county were not disclosed. According to the lawsuit, Peralta sought back pay, front pay as well as vacation pay in addition to damages for emotional distress, pre- and post-judgment interest, costs, attorney’s fees and punitive damages.
Day suggested better policies and guidelines for addressing the needs of first responders could have prevented the ordeal.
“The county could have saved a lot of money if they’d had some sort of program in place,” Day said.
“Well, they could have saved my life is what they could have done,” Peralta added.
The former sergeant continues to reside in Taos but was not certain whether he would return to law enforcement.