865 F.2d 431 (1st Cir. 1989), 87-1869, Santiago-Negron v. Castro-Davila

Docket Nº:87-1869.
Citation:865 F.2d 431
Party Name:Ivette SANTIAGO-NEGRON, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. Modesto CASTRO-DAVILA, etc., et al., Defendants, Appellants.
Case Date:January 11, 1989
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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Page 431

865 F.2d 431 (1st Cir. 1989)

Ivette SANTIAGO-NEGRON, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees,

v.

Modesto CASTRO-DAVILA, etc., et al., Defendants, Appellants.

No. 87-1869.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

January 11, 1989

Heard June 7, 1988.

Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc Denied Feb. 3, 1989.

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Reina Colon De Rodriguez, Asst. Sol. Gen., Dept. of Justice, with whom Rafael Ortiz Carrion, Sol. Gen., and Norma Cotti Cruz, Deputy Sol. Gen., were on brief, for defendants, appellants.

Miguel Pagan, San Juan, P.R., with whom Eliezer Aldarondo Ortiz, Hato Rey, P.R., was on brief, for plaintiffs, appellees.

Before BOWNES, TORRUELLA and SELYA, Circuit Judges.

BOWNES, Circuit Judge.

The lawsuit giving rise to this appeal was an aftermath of the November 1984 elections in Puerto Rico. Prior to that election, the Mayor of the Municipality of Las Piedras and the majority of its Municipal Assembly were members of the New Progressive Party (NPP). As a result of the election, political control of Las Piedras shifted to the Popular Democratic Party (PDP); the newly-elected Mayor and a majority of the Municipal Assembly belonged to the PDP. Animated by the venerable political and military maxim that "to the victor belongs the spoils," the new Mayor and his administration proceeded to replace Municipal employees belonging to the NPP with those whose allegiance was to the PDP. This was considered by the adversely affected employees to be counter to the teachings of Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 100 S.Ct. 1287, 63 L.Ed.2d 574 (1980),

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and Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976). Hence a 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 civil rights action was brought against the Mayor of Las Piedras, its Personnel Officer, and the Director of Public Works, the President of the Municipal Assembly, the Municipality itself, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. All of the city officials were sued individually 1 and in their official capacity. The complaint alleged that the defendants violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights to due process and freedom of speech either by firing them or by transferring, demoting, and discriminating against them because of their political affiliation.

When the trial started, there were seven plaintiffs: 2 Rogue Castro Hernandez; Miguel Collazo Gonzalez; Hector R. Rodriguez Estrella; Roberto Figueroa del Valle; Pablo Cruz Soto; Ivette Santiago Negron; and Wanda I. Rosa Flores. The defendants at trial were: Mayor Modesto Castro Davila; Personnel Officer Judith Velazquez Delgado; Director of Public Works Bernaldo de Jesus Diaz; and the Municipality. 3

After a jury trial, all the defendants, except the Municipality 4 were found liable to some or all of the plaintiffs; compensatory damages were assessed against the defendants separately on each claim and three of the plaintiffs were awarded punitive damages. 5 The district court incorporated into the judgment a reinstatement and back pay order for each plaintiff. The three individual defendants have appealed. They raise five issues: the jury instructions; the district court's back pay and reinstatement orders; the court's handling of inconsistent answers to special jury questions; the finding of liability and award of damages in favor of Wanda I. Rosa Flores; and the jury award of punitive damages.

Before we start our consideration of the issues appealed, it must be noted that appellants have not appealed the jury findings that the plaintiffs were fired or demoted and discriminated against solely because of their political affiliation.

I. THE JURY INSTRUCTIONS

Appellants' claim of error in the jury instructions has two bases. First, that the instruction did not completely follow the test established in Mt. Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 286-87, 97 S.Ct. 568, 575-76, 50 L.Ed.2d 471 (1976). Second, that the Mt. Healthy instruction, in order to be properly applied, should have included specific instructions on the "nullity" of appointments made contrary to the personnel laws of Puerto Rico.

The district court gave lengthy and detailed instructions on liability. The specific Mt. Healthy instruction was:

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Plaintiffs must prove that their political affiliation was a motivating factor in the decision to separate them from the positions they occupied, or in the case of those that were not fully separated, for the personal [sic] action that was taken. Isolated evidence that one party or the other was of a given political party, should not be enough. You must look at all the evidence, direct and circumstantial, to determine if political affiliation was a motivating factor.

Notwithstanding this fact, you may find for defendants, if they prove the existence of other grounds that would have been bona fide grounds for the personnel action, even in the absence of the alleged politically discriminatory motive.

Standing alone, this instruction might not pass muster under Mt. Healthy with flying colors, but the court had already instructed the jury on the burden of proof and that it should find for the defendants if there were bona fide grounds for the actions taken "even in the absence of the alleged politically discriminatory motive." This last sentence is, of course, a rephrasing of the Court's statement in Mt. Healthy that one of the prongs of the test is whether the defendant has shown by a preponderance of the evidence "that it would have reached the same decision as to respondent's reemployment even in the absence of the protected conduct." 429 U.S. at 287, 97 S.Ct. at 576. Viewing the charge as a whole, as we must, we find no error in the Mt. Healthy instruction.

We next consider the failure of the district court to give two requested instructions:

NULLITY OF APPOINTMENTS

Puerto Rican Law Establishes a series of mechanisms such as:

1. Public Notice of the Opportunities of Employment.

2. The Public Notice shall contain a description of the employment opportunity and be published at least ten (10) days before the final day to apply.

3. Applicants must take an examination for the positions.

4. Selection shall be from a certified list of eligibles.

These requirements stem from the need of making the employee selection process as fair and equitable as possible in order to employ the best qualified persons. Whoever is occupying the position of Mayor of a town is bound to follow the guidelines established under the applicable personnel regulations regarding selection of personnel, if those regulations are not followed, the appointments are illegal and void and said employees are subject to summary dismissals.

NONCOMPLIANCE WITH RECRUITMENT PROCEDURES

If an employee is not recruited in strict compliance with the required procedures for recruitment and selection under the law, then that employee's appointment is and has always been null and void, and therefore that person may not claim the protection of the law in case of dismissal.

One of the defenses raised was that none of the plaintiffs had been hired in accord with the personnel laws and regulations of the Commonwealth. The district court refused to give the requested instructions because the evidence showed that Las Piedras, along with other small municipalities, did not follow the law in hiring municipal employees. In rejecting the instructions, the judge stated:

THE COURT: Because the problem is, I firmly believe that the law cannot be applied in a vacuum. The law must be applied taking into consideration what really happens in this world. And if this is the situation that this Municipality was in, I suppose, that reasonable men may say, that even though that is the case, and in a classroom exercise you would be correct.

However, some people may agree that even under those circumstances, these persons may be entitled to their rights, because that was the pattern of conduct, the custom in the Municipality.

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The district court did, however, instruct the jury on the personnel laws of Puerto Rico and their applicability to municipalities. The jury was told that, under the laws that went into effect on October 14, 1975, and June 18, 1980, no provision was made for "irregular" employees (wage earners hired on an hourly rate basis), a category into which some of the plaintiffs belonged. The judge then went on to state that, even if the guidelines established by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico in May of 1982 explicitly forbade the hiring of "irregulars," the practice continued.

The court then instructed the jury on how career employees should be hired, trained and promoted. The following instruction was given.

The law contains--and this part, this instruction is important, all instructions are important, but this is particularly important, because of the situation that we found in this case. The law contains optimum standards which should be complied with. These include public notice of opportunity of employment, the taking of examinations for career positions, selections from a certified list of eligible candidates, all to make the employee selection process as fair and equitable as possible, in order to employ the best qualified persons.

In this particular case, the evidence shows that these principles were not followed strictly by the prior political administration of the Municipality of Las Piedras and that the present administration, up to this date, has not complied with local laws in that respect. Under those circumstances, you must consider this situation in passing judgment and in determining whether, in light of the evidence received by you, and in light of these instructions, the personal [sic] actions in this case were...

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