Spaceport lawsuit settled before trial start

By: - July 20, 2023 4:45 am
A sign stands outside the entrance to Spaceport America, prior to the launch of Virgin Galactics SpaceShipTwo Unity, July 10, 2021 in Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico.

A sign stands outside the entrance to Spaceport America outside of Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. The New Mexico Spaceport Authority, which operates Spaceport America, settled a lawsuit spanning three years with a former employee just before the trial was set to start at the end of July. (Photo by David Lienemann / Getty Images)

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority settled a lawsuit by a former employee who alleged discrimination and retaliation, just before a trial was scheduled to begin July 31, according to court documents.

The settlement agreement ends a three-year-long civil lawsuit against the agency. The terms of the settlement will be released on the state’s Sunshine Portal settlement and awards page, within the next few days to weeks.

Karen Barker, a space systems engineer, brought the lawsuit to First Judicial District Court in 2020. Barker worked for two years between 2017 and 2019 as the Strategic Solutions Director at the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

Barker sued the former CEO Dan Hicks and the state agency for subjecting her to “different, less favorable treatment than male counterparts,” at the agency.

“She was not included as part of the male team, leaving her in a subordinate role only to be used to provide contacts for male members of the team and support them with enough knowledge so they could appear to understand the Spaceport business,” the complaint said.

Barker claimed that Hicks made a hostile work environment by “scolding Barker demeaningly over the Spaceport open-broadcast radio,” in front of customers, yelling during meetings, and “benching” her. This culminated when Barker was put on “indefinite, involuntary leave,” for raising complaints of a sexist workplace in 2019, the lawsuit states. She submitted a written resignation, but said she felt she was forced to resign.

Replies and responses from Paula Maynes, who represented the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, countered Barker’s allegations. In motions for dismissal, the agency claimed that she wasn’t fired because of sex discrimination, but because she “demonstrated her unfitness for management.”

Spaceport attorneys wrote in a motion with attached confidential memo from Hicks, which alleged Barker had inappropriately disclosed a subordinate’s confidential health issues, and made “racially offensive comments,” about other employees.

Those comments included saying two coworkers would never be fired “because they are Mexicans,” court documents said.

Motions were flying around until the last minute. Both sides were requesting Judge Matthew Wilson to limit who could testify in the matter in late June. Barker’s attorney also requested that her mental health, financial status, and former coworkers at a previous firm be barred from testifying.

The court dismissed the case July 10, after attorneys notified the judge that a settlement was in place.

Emails to the attorneys for Barker, Hicks went unreturned Wednesday. Attorneys for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority said there would be no comment from the agency.

A second, unrelated whistleblower lawsuit filed by former CFO Zach DeGregorio is currently in a mediation phase, which will end July 31. Until then, it’s unclear whether a settlement agreement will result from those confidential negotiations.


This story was updated on Thursday, July 20, 2023 at 11:16 a.m. to correctly reflect the 2020 change in New Mexico Public Records laws regarding settlement timelines.


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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.