351 F.3d 547 (1st Cir. 2003), 02-1139, Acevedo-Garcia v. Monroig

Docket Nº:02-1139
Citation:351 F.3d 547
Party Name:Acevedo-Garcia v. Monroig
Case Date:December 05, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 547

351 F.3d 547 (1st Cir. 2003)

Luis A. ACEVEDO-GARCIA, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees/Cross-Appellants,

v.

Roberto Vera MONROIG, Individually and as Mayor of Adjuntas; Municipality of Adjuntas; Irma M. Gonzalez Delgado, Individually and as Personnel Director of Adjuntas, Defendants, Appellants/Cross-Appellees.

Nos. 02-1139, 02-1340, 02-1465.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 5, 2003

Heard May 6, 2003.

Page 548

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 549

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 550

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 551

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 552

Johanna M. Emmanuelli-Huertas, with whom Jorge Martinez Luciano and Law Offices of Pedro A. Ortiz Alvarez were on brief for the Municipality of Adjuntas.

Luis Villares Sarmiento, with whom Yahaida Zabala, and Sanchez, Betances & Sifre, were on brief for Appellants/Cross-Appellees Vera and Gonzalez in their individual capacities.

Gael Mahony, with whom Israel Roldan-Gonzalez, Stuart Svonkin, Erica Templeton, Michael E. Liftik, and Hill & Barlow were on brief for Appellees/Cross-Appellants.

Page 553

Before BOUDIN, Chief Judge, BOWNES, [*] Senior Circuit Judge, and LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

This complex political discrimination case was filed by eighty-two plaintiffs terminated from career employment positions with the municipality of Adjuntas in Puerto Rico. The district court severed the plaintiffs into four groups--three groups of twenty and one group of twenty-two--and the claims of the first twenty plaintiffs are now before us on defendants' appeal from a substantial verdict for plaintiffs. Although this case raises many familiar issues, it also presents some unusual questions arising from the court's initial severance of the plaintiffs, and its later decision to apply non-mutual offensive collateral estoppel to the three remaining pieces of the severed litigation. We vacate the court's collateral estoppel order, and affirm in all other respects.

I.

On November 12, 1997, eighty-two current and former employees of the municipality of Adjuntas brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of their First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights arising from a massive layoff of municipal employees in the aftermath of the November 1996 mayoral election. Every claimant was fired from a "career position" (akin to a civil service job), as opposed to a "trust position" (political appointment), temporary or transitory post, or "contract" (fixed term) job. The plaintiffs named three defendants in the suit--Roberto Vera Monroig ("Vera"), the mayor of Adjuntas (sued in both his individual and official capacities); Irma Gonzalez, Adjunta's Director of Human Resources (sued in both her individual and official capacities); and the municipality of Adjuntas. 1

On November 23, 1998, the district court issued an order and opinion denying absolute and/or qualified immunity to Mayor Vera and Gonzalez in their individual capacities, and granting in part and denying in part the defendants' motion for summary judgment. See Acevedo-Garcia v. Vera-Monroig, 30 F.Supp.2d 141 (D.P.R.1998) ("Acevedo I"). In an opinion published February 17, 2000, we affirmed the district court's order in all respects, ruling inter alia that defendants could not claim the protection of absolute immunity, and

Page 554

that we lacked jurisdiction to review the district court's rulings on qualified immunity and municipal liability. See Acevedo-Garcia v. Vera-Monroig, 204 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2000) ("Acevedo II").

Our decision in Acevedo II cleared the remaining roadblocks to trial, and the district court undertook the formidable logistical task of arranging to try the multitude of political discrimination, political harassment, and due process claims alleged by the eighty-two individual plaintiffs. 2 To this end, the court issued an order on October 11, 2001, severing the case into four separate trials of twenty, twenty, twenty, and twenty-two plaintiffs, respectively. To configure the first group of twenty plaintiffs, the order directed each side to choose six plaintiffs with political discrimination and due process claims only (for a total of twelve), and four plaintiffs prosecuting political discrimination, due process and political harassment claims (for a total of eight).

The trial for this first group began October 12, 2001, and lasted twenty-three days. At the conclusion of the proceedings, the jury returned a verdict awarding each plaintiff a package of compensatory and punitive damages totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, summing to a group total of $6,956,400. After a flurry of post-trial motions, the court entered judgment on the verdict. It then issued an order on January 30, 2002 applying the doctrine of non-mutual offensive collateral estoppel to preclude defendants from litigating the defendants' liability for political discrimination and denial of the plaintiffs' due process rights. Acevedo-Garcia v. Vera-Monroig, 213 F.Supp.2d 38, 41 (D.P.R.2002).

Defendants filed a timely appeal after this first trial, challenging inter alia the sufficiency of the evidence at the summary judgment stage, the sufficiency of the evidence at trial, the severance of plaintiffs into four groups, the district court's denial of qualified immunity, numerous evidentiary rulings, the court's active participation at trial, the damage award, and the court's application of non-mutual offensive collateral estoppel. Plaintiffs cross-appealed from the district court's denial of an injunction ordering the reinstatement of all plaintiffs.

II.

Acevedo I and Acevedo II provide a lengthy exposition of the background facts in this case. See Acevedo II, 204 F.3d at 4-7; Acevedo I, 30 F.Supp.2d at 143-45. We summarize those facts here, and supplement our recitation with an overview of the post-Acevedo II developments. 3

A. Stipulated and Undisputed Facts

Defendant Vera, representing the Popular Democratic Party ("PDP"), won the November 1996 mayoral election in Adjuntas, and appointed Defendant Gonzalez, a fellow PDP member, to be the Director of Human Resources on January 14, 1997. Vera and Gonzalez inherited a municipal government whose ranks were swelled by

Page 555

115 new hires during the seven-year administration of Rigoberto Ramos, Vera's predecessor, and a member of the rival New Progressive Party ("NPP"). Of those 115 employees, only 2 were affiliated with the PDP. By January 1997, the municipality employed 229 regular employees, and the parties stipulated prior to trial that "many departments were so overstaffed that some employees did not have desks."

On April 30, 1996, the Puerto Rico Comptroller's Office published an audit report, M-96-14, indicating that Adjuntas had accrued annual budget deficits of at least $1,000,000 from 1985 to 1990. After Vera took office in January 1997, he commissioned a second financial audit of the municipality by Reinaldo Ramirez, a certified public accountant. Ramirez presented his report on May 8, 1997, informing city officials that the municipality had a budget deficit of over $5,000,000 and long term debts totaling more than $2,000,000. Anticipating this unwelcome news, Vera had previously hired a Human Resources Consulting firm in February 1997 to prepare a "Layoff Plan for Municipality of Adjuntas Employees" (the "Plan"). The consultants completed the Plan in March 1997, and it received approval from the Adjuntas Municipal Assembly on April 2, 1997 (as required under Puerto Rico's Autonomous Municipalities Act). See 21 P.R. Laws Ann. § 4551, as amended (1995) ("Law 81"). On April 11, 1997, a copy of the Plan was circulated to every municipal employee.

In broad strokes, the Plan (1) enumerated the steps the municipality was obliged to undertake before firing employees (including relocation, retraining, temporary unpaid leave, demotions to vacant positions, and voluntary retirement); (2) established an order of priority for laying off municipal workers; and (3) established a series of procedures for earmarking particular employees and job classifications for termination, and for providing notice to the affected individuals. The Plan was not self-executing. Instead, it authorized the termination of municipal employees "[w]hen the Mayor determines that there are financial problems and that as a result, programs or services are being affected." The Mayor made this determination in May 1997 after conferring with Ramirez and the Human Resource consultants, and he ordered city officials to implement the Plan. When the dust settled on October 31, 1997, 102 employees, including 82 NPP members and 11 PDP members, had been fired from their career positions.

Since January 1, 1997, the municipality has hired seventy-seven new employees to "contract" or fixed-term jobs funded through non-municipal sources (i.e. federal and state programs). The most significant of these programs, referred to as "Law 52," allows municipalities to present job training proposals to the Labor Department of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which may then appropriate funds on an annual basis to underwrite the salaries of a certain number of municipal employees that the city could not otherwise afford. Only five of the eighty-two plaintiffs received one of these seventy-seven appointments, the vast majority of which went to PDP members.

B. Contested Facts

The trial featured a contentious dispute regarding the period preceding the October 31, 1997 layoffs. The twenty plaintiffs in the first trial group testified that during this period, the defendants sabotaged their working conditions by denying NPP employees (and only NPP employees) basic amenities, including phone privileges, short work breaks for breakfast, access to restroom facilities, and the opportunity to drive municipal vehicles to perform their job functions. Many plaintiffs testified

Page 556

that they were...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP