1 F.3d 62 (1st Cir. 1993), 92-1846, Acevedo-Diaz v. Aponte

Docket Nº:92-1846, 92-1848.
Citation:1 F.3d 62
Party Name:Franco ACEVEDO-DIAZ, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. Jose E. APONTE, et al., Defendants, Appellees, Ada N. Perez, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants. Franco ACEVEDO-DIAZ, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. Jose E. APONTE, et al., Defendants, Appellees, Dorotea Collazo Rivera, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants.
Case Date:August 03, 1993
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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1 F.3d 62 (1st Cir. 1993)

Franco ACEVEDO-DIAZ, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees,

v.

Jose E. APONTE, et al., Defendants, Appellees,

Ada N. Perez, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants.

Franco ACEVEDO-DIAZ, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees,

v.

Jose E. APONTE, et al., Defendants, Appellees,

Dorotea Collazo Rivera, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants.

Nos. 92-1846, 92-1848.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

August 3, 1993

Heard Feb. 4, 1993.

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Raul Barrera Morales, Santurce, PR, for plaintiffs, appellants.

William Reyes Elias, Hato Rey, PR, with whom Cesar R. Miranda Law Office, San Juan, PR, was on brief, for defendants, appellees.

Before SELYA, CYR and STAHL, Circuit Judges.

CYR, Circuit Judge.

In November 1984, Jose E. Aponte, the candidate of the Popular Democratic Party ("PDP"), was elected mayor of the Municipality of Carolina ("City"), Puerto Rico, defeating the incumbent mayor, Roberto Iglesias, the candidate of the New Progressive Party ("NPP"). During his first year in office, Mayor Aponte either terminated, or refused to renew, several hundred non-policymaking city employees hired under the previous administration. In letters of dismissal to the employees, Aponte claimed that the City faced a severe fiscal crisis, and disclosed various criteria for determining which municipal employees were to be terminated in order to effect the necessary economies:

(1) employees hired without compliance with Commonwealth or municipal personnel laws and regulations, see, e.g., P.R.Laws Ann. tit. 3, Secs. 1331-1337, which dictate the public posting of available positions and competitive examinations;

(2) employees hired or promoted during the 1984 "veda," or "electoral prohibition period," a four-month "window" before and after a municipal election during which hiring, renewals, or promotions by the incumbent administration are proscribed by law;

(3) employees who submitted no documentary proof that they possessed the minimum education and experience required for their positions;

(4) employees whose job positions were deemed nonessential, and therefore expendable; or

(5) employees who had committed employment infractions (e.g., unexcused leaves of absence, chronic tardiness).

In March 1986, 357 terminated employees, claiming political affiliation with the ousted NPP, brought the present civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 against the City, Mayor Aponte, Jose A. del Valle (at times, the acting mayor), and Felix Martinez (the personnel officer). Plaintiffs alleged that their dismissals were due solely to their NPP affiliation, in violation of their First Amendment and due process rights under the United States Constitution. The complaint demanded compensatory and punitive damages, as well as reinstatement. 1

The claims of 255 plaintiffs went to the jury following a four-month trial, and defendant verdicts were returned on the claims of 240 plaintiffs. Six plaintiffs were awarded compensatory damages (from $1700 to $10,440) against the City, and punitive damages ($25,000) against Aponte, while nine plaintiffs were awarded nominal damages ($1.00) against the City, 2 and punitive damages ($25,000) against Aponte. The district court denied all claims for reinstatement. Finally, in May 1992, the court set aside all fifteen plaintiff verdicts. The present appeal is

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brought by eleven of the fifteen disappointed plaintiffs.

DISCUSSION

  1. Standard of Review and Applicable Law

    A jury verdict may not be set aside as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) except on a " 'determination that the evidence could lead a reasonable person to only one conclusion.' " Hiraldo-Cancel v. Aponte, 925 F.2d 10, 12 n. 2 (1st Cir.) (quoting Conway v. Electro Switch Corp., 825 F.2d 593, 598 (1st Cir.1987)) (emphasis added), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 637, 116 L.Ed.2d 655 (1991); see Ferrer v. Zayas, 914 F.2d 309, 311 (1st Cir.1990). On de novo review, the court of appeals will uphold the verdict unless the facts and inferences, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, "point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of the movant that a reasonable jury could not have [returned the verdict]." Hendricks & Assocs., Inc. v. Daewoo Corp., 923 F.2d 209, 214 (1st Cir.1991); Ferrer, 914 F.2d at 311; Mayo v. Schooner Capital Corp., 825 F.2d 566, 568 (1st Cir.1987).

    In a political discrimination case, see Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 100 S.Ct. 1287, 63 L.Ed.2d 574 (1980); Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976), plaintiffs must bear the threshold burden of producing sufficient direct or circumstantial evidence from which a jury reasonably may infer that plaintiffs' constitutionally protected conduct--in this case, political affiliation with the NPP--was a "substantial" or "motivating" factor behind their dismissal. 3 See Ferrer, 914 F.2d at 311; Estrada-Izquierdo v. Aponte-Roque, 850 F.2d 10, 13 (1st Cir.1988); Rosaly v. Ignacio, 593 F.2d 145, 148-49 (1st Cir.1979). Once plaintiffs clear the threshold, the burden shifts to defendants to articulate a nondiscriminatory ground for the dismissals, and prove by a preponderance of the evidence that plaintiffs would have been dismissed regardless of their political affiliation. See Givhan v. Western Line Consol. Sch. Dist., 439 U.S. 410, 416, 99 S.Ct. 693, 697, 58 L.Ed.2d 619 (1979); Rodriguez-Pinto v. Tirado-Delgado, 982 F.2d 34, 39 (1st Cir.1993); Kercado-Melendez v. Aponte-Roque, 829 F.2d 255, 264 (1st Cir.1987), cert. denied, 486 U.S. 1044, 108 S.Ct. 2037, 100 L.Ed.2d 621 (1988). Either this "but for" causation test, or the defendant-employer's "Mt. Healthy defense," ensures that a plaintiff-employee who would have been dismissed in any event on legitimate grounds is not placed in a better position merely by virtue of the exercise of a constitutional right irrelevant to the adverse employment action. See Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 284, 97 S.Ct. 568, 574, 50 L.Ed.2d 471 (1977); Acosta-Sepulveda v. Hernandez-Purcell, 889 F.2d 9, 13 (1st Cir.1989); Rosaly, 593 F.2d at 148.

    After a careful summarization of the trial evidence, the district court granted defendants' Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law because the bulk of the circumstantial evidence relied on by plaintiffs--namely, their party affiliation and the temporal proximity between their dismissals and Mayor Aponte's inauguration--was too conjectural and conclusory to counteract the "overwhelming" Mt. Healthy defense, which demonstrated that massive layoffs were compelled as a result of the severe fiscal crisis brought on by the overhiring of City personnel under the previous administration. See Kauffman v. Puerto Rico Tel. Co., 841 F.2d 1169, 1172 (1st Cir.1988) (finding that plaintiffs failed to allege the type of specific evidence of politically discriminatory animus required to avoid summary judgment).

    The district court opinion compares the Mt. Healthy burden-shifting mechanism to similar devices used in other employment discrimination cases, such as Title VII cases, see, e.g., Chamberlin v. 101 Realty, Inc., 915 F.2d 777, 782 (1st Cir.1990), and ADEA cases, see, e.g., Goldman v. First Nat'l Bank, 985 F.2d 1113, 1116-18 (1st Cir.1993). The opinion states that, once the defendant interposes the Mt. Healthy defense, "the plaintiff

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    then has the opportunity to demonstrate that the alleged nondiscriminatory reason is a false pretext," which may be accomplished either by " 'persuading the [jury] that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated the employer or indirectly by showing that [the] employer's proffered explanation is unworthy of credence.' " Dist.Ct. Op., at 4 (quoting Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 256, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 1095, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981) (Title VII case)). Although literally correct, the quoted statement gives us pause, especially in light of the citation to Burdine. Since a proper allocation of the burden of persuasion is critical to our assessment of the district court's decision under Rule 50(b), we first revisit the applicable burden-shifting procedure.

    Under Title VII, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination, at which point a presumption of discrimination attaches to the plaintiff's claim. A limited burden of production then passes to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions, a burden which is fully satisfied if the employer submits enough evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact. The employer need not submit sufficient evidence to "persuade the [fact finder]." Burdine, 450 U.S. at 254, 101 S.Ct. at 1094. In other words, notwithstanding the interim shift in the burden of production to the employer, the plaintiff-employee in a Title VII case "retains the burden of persuasion" at all times. Id.

    By contrast, under the Mt. Healthy burden-shifting mechanism applicable to a First Amendment political discrimination claim, the burden of persuasion itself passes to the defendant-employer once the plaintiff produces sufficient evidence from which the fact finder reasonably can infer that the plaintiff's protected conduct was a "substantial" or "motivating" factor behind her dismissal. Accordingly, once the burden of persuasion shifts to the defendant-employer, the plaintiff-employee will prevail unless the fact finder concludes that the defendant has produced enough evidence to establish that the plaintiff's dismissal would have occurred in any event for nondiscriminatory reasons.

    Therefore, we can sustain a Rule 50(b) reversal in a political discrimination case only if: (1)...

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