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$350,000 Settlement for New Mexico Pretrial Detainee in ‘Failure to Protect’ Claim

by David M. Reutter

New Mexico’s Lea County paid $350,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging guards at the Lea County Detention Center (LCDC) failed to protect a pretrial detainee.

John Cordova was housed at LCDC on April 29, 2017, on a probation violation. Guards Joe Portillo and Dillon Phipps observed strange behavior in the pod Cordova was housed within and went to investigate. He overheard someone say, “Why did you punch that small dude in the face?” When they arrived at the area, they saw a detainee who had toilet paper stuck up his nose soaking up blood. In the next cell, Portillo saw Cordova sweating profusely. After looking at Cordova’s knuckles, he saw they were red and swollen.

Lt. Johel Maldonado was contacted and informed of the fight. LCDC policy required that Maldonado order the participants in the fight be placed in segregation. The purpose of that policy is to protect them from retaliation from others. Maldonado, however, took no action at all.

Three hours later, seven other detainees savagely attacked Cordova, kicking him in the head numerous times. Guards found Cordova lying unconscious in the floor. He was bleeding, his arms and legs were twitching. He was taken to a hospital. When LCDC warden Ruben Quintana learned of the gravity of Cordova’s condition, he had Cordova’s probation officer contacted in an effort to withdraw the probation warrant. That warrant was withdrawn and Cordova was released from custody.

He was then transferred to another hospital and diagnosed with a fractured skull, epidural and subdural hematomas, seizures, and a collapsed nasal bone. He was released from the hospital on May 3, 2017, but complications resulted in him being taken to another hospital later that day. There he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, post-concussive disorder, and a frontoparietal subdural hematomas. On May 5, he was admitted to a rehabilitative hospital for therapy. He was released on May 19, 2017.

The attack resulted in permanent damage, including seizure disorder. During a seizure, Cordova fell and broke his jaw. At the time the civil rights complaint was filed on April 23, 2019, Cordova still suffered a traumatic brain injury seizure disorder, difficulty walking, and memory impairment.

The settlement was reached on April 6, 2020. It provided for $200,000 in attorney fees for Cordova’s Albuquerque based attorneys Alexandra Freedman Smith and Frances C. Carpenter. It also provided for a $150,000 annuity purchase that will make payments to Cordova starting on April 1, 2024 and continue through May 1, 2033. See: Cordova v. Lea County Detention Center, U.S.D.C., D. New Mexico, Case No. 1:19-cv-0037. 

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Related legal case

Cordova v. Lea County Detention Center