850 F.2d 10 (1st Cir. 1988), 87-1567, Estrada-Izquierdo v. Aponte-Roque

Docket Nº:87-1567.
Citation:850 F.2d 10
Party Name:Miriam ESTRADA-IZQUIERDO, Plaintiff, Appellee, v. Awilda APONTE-ROQUE, etc., Defendant, Appellant.
Case Date:June 28, 1988
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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850 F.2d 10 (1st Cir. 1988)

Miriam ESTRADA-IZQUIERDO, Plaintiff, Appellee,

v.

Awilda APONTE-ROQUE, etc., Defendant, Appellant.

No. 87-1567.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

June 28, 1988

Heard Dec. 7, 1987.

Carlos Del Valle with whom Marcos A. Ramirez Irizarry, Ramirez & Ramirez, Hato Rey, P.R., and Hector Rivera Cruz, Secretary of Justice, were on brief, for defendant, appellant.

Pedro Miranda Corrada, San Juan, P.R., with whom Hector Urgell Cuebas was on brief, for plaintiff, appellee.

Before BOWNES and SELYA, Circuit Judges, and LAFFITTE, [*] District Judge.

BOWNES, Circuit Judge.

Awilda Aponte Roque (Aponte), Secretary of Puerto Rico's Department of Public Education (the Department), appeals from a judgment of the district court reinstating Miriam Estrada Izquierdo (Estrada) as superintendent of schools for the Maricao School District. The district court found that Estrada's ouster from that position, and her assignment to a specially-created

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position as assistant superintendent in the same district, was effected by Aponte for political reasons, in violation of Estrada's first amendment rights. Estrada is a member of the New Progressive Party (Partido Nuevo Progresista or PNP) while Aponte is a member of the Popular Democratic Party (Partido Popular Democratico or PPD). Aponte argues that the district court's finding of political motivation was clearly erroneous or, alternatively, that the district court should have abstained from exercising federal jurisdiction in order to avoid interfering with a comprehensive state personnel regulatory scheme. Aponte also argues that the district court erred in awarding Estrada back pay. We affirm in part, reverse in part and remand.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This case arises from a court-approved settlement of another political demotion case, which resulted in Estrada's predecessor, a member of the PPD, being appointed to the position from which Estrada was removed. The background lies in two recent Puerto Rico elections, each of which resulted in the ruling party being swept out of power. In 1976, it was the PNP replacing the PPD, in 1984 vice versa. Each change in power has resulted in a multitude of personnel changes spawning numerous lawsuits alleging unconstitutionally politically motivated firings and demotions. Many of these lawsuits, involving one election or another, have reached this court. E.g., Rivera Fernandez v. Chardon, 648 F.2d 765 (1st Cir.) (1976 election), rev'd, 454 U.S. 6, 102 S.Ct. 28, 70 L.Ed.2d 6 (1981), on remand, 681 F.2d 42 (1st Cir.1982), aff'd sub nom. Chardon v. Fumero Soto, 462 U.S. 650, 103 S.Ct. 2611, 77 L.Ed.2d 74 (1983); Kercado Melendez v. Aponte Roque, 829 F.2d 255 (1st Cir.1987) (1984 election); Kauffman v. Puerto Rico Telephone Co., 841 F.2d 1169 (1st Cir.1988) (1984 election). This case involves both elections.

In July of 1976, while the PPD was still in power, Carlos Humberto Vega (Vega), an active member of the PPD, was appointed as superintendent of schools for the Maricao School District on a substitute basis. 1 In April of 1977, after the change in political power to the PNP, Vega requested that his status be changed from substitute to probationary, in order that he could eventually gain tenure or permanency in the position. Instead, on July 1, 1977, Vega was removed from the superintendency and reinstated to his prior position of assistant superintendent. Along with several other displaced educators, Vega brought suit in the Commonwealth Superior Court against Carlos Chardon, then Secretary of the Department of Public Education and a member of the PNP, alleging that his demotion was politically motivated and violated his statutory and constitutional rights.

In May of 1980, the superior court handed down a partial judgment in Vega's case. Cabiya v. Chardon, Civ. No. PE-77-942 (May 16, 1980). The court held that Vega had no statutory right to a change in his status from substitute to probationary, and thus that he had no claim to tenure under state law. The court, however, reserved judgment until a later date on Vega's constitutional claims. Those claims were still unresolved in 1981 when Estrada was elevated from assistant superintendent to superintendent in Maricao. Estrada was aware that Vega had sued, claiming a right to the superintendency, and that his claim had been rejected by the superior court on statutory grounds. But Estrada was not aware that Vega's constitutional claims were still pending. Estrada remained superintendent without incident until January of 1986. During her time as superintendent, she admittedly satisfied all the requirements to obtain tenure in the position.

Meanwhile, in the 1984 elections, Estrada's party, the PNP, was removed from power and the PPD voted in. Aponte became Secretary of the Department in the new administration, and Vega's slow-moving

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political discrimination case took on a new and interesting posture. Aponte, a member of Vega's own political party, now became the defendant against charges that Vega should be reinstated because the prior secretary had discriminated against Vega on account of his political affiliation. At the same time, the superior court judge overseeing the case set a trial date and began pressing the parties to reach a settlement.

In October of 1985, an attorney at the Department of Justice (DOJ), who was handling the defense of Vega's case, wrote to Elba Rodriguez Fuentes (Rodriguez), the head of legal affairs at the Department of Public Education, about Vega's claims. The letter mentioned that the presiding judge was urging settlement and requested that the Department investigate Vega's qualifications to be a superintendent. The matter was assigned to Alba Nydia Caballero Fuentes (Caballero), the Assistant Secretary for Personnel, who reported back to Rodriguez that Vega could be considered qualified. Rodriguez did not at that time make any recommendation regarding settlement, but left the matter with Caballero, herself an attorney, who was in charge of the matter for the Department.

In the course of her work on Vega's case, Caballero conferred with an Assistant Secretary at DOJ who indicated that DOJ was recommending settlement because it believed its case was weak. DOJ did not recommend that Vega necessarily be reinstated at Maricao, but only advised that some settlement be reached. Indeed, DOJ forwarded to the Department Vega's own proposed settlement, under which he would be made superintendent in Lajas, not Maricao. Vega was then occupying the Lajas position on an interim basis.

Nevertheless, Caballero, on her own accord, determined that Vega could be reinstated only in Maricao. Caballero reasoned that, under the applicable personnel regulations, if Vega had not been removed in 1977, he would have earned tenure in the Maricao superintendency. Under the Puerto Rico Permanency Act, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 18, Sec. 214, such tenure is specific to a particular municipality. 2 Thus, reasoned Caballero, any settlement would have to involve the Maricao position and no other. There would be no problem in removing Estrada from the Maricao position, Caballero concluded, because her purported tenure in the position was actually null under state law since Vega's right to occupy the position was still the subject of litigation. Caballero eventually recommended a settlement, which included reinstating Vega at Maricao. Aponte approved it. Although the actual settlement was executed by DOJ, it is conceded that the settlement would not have been entered into without Aponte's approval. A judgment embodying the settlement was entered by the superior court on November 25, 1985.

Estrada knew nothing about these 1985 settlement negotiations, and neither DOJ nor the Department informed her that they were considering a settlement that would involve appointing Vega to the position she occupied. Estrada first learned that she was being demoted in January 1986, a month after the settlement, when she was summoned to a meeting with Caballero and an undersecretary at the Department. There Estrada was handed a letter, signed by Aponte, stating that she was being removed from her position in accordance with a judgment of the superior court. The letter did not mention that the judgment had been entered pursuant to a settlement, nor did it mention who, if anyone, would be replacing Estrada. When Estrada asked for an explanation, she was not given one but was instead referred to the superior court for more information. The day after receiving the letter, Estrada wrote a letter to Aponte protesting her removal as a violation of her statutory constitutional rights.

II. PROCEEDINGS BELOW

Meeting with no success on her protest, on February 10, 1986, Estrada filed a complaint

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against Aponte in United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. The complaint alleged two causes of action under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. First, Estrada claimed that, as a permanent superintendent, she could be demoted only for good cause after a hearing and that her firing without notice violated her right to due process under the fourteenth amendment. Second, Estrada claimed that her demotion was due solely to the fact that she was a member of the PNP, and thus constituted political discrimination in violation of the first amendment. The complaint named Aponte both individually and in her official capacity as Secretary. It requested preliminary and permanent injunctive relief reinstating Estrada, and $250,000 for compensatory damages and the same amount in punitive damages.

The district court bifurcated the case into injunctive relief and damages phases, and a one day preliminary and permanent injunction hearing was held on February 23, 1987. Estrada testified at the hearing...

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