NegrÓN-Almeda v. Santiago, 07-2013.

Citation528 F.3d 15
Decision Date05 June 2008
Docket NumberNo. 07-2013.,No. 07-2140.,07-2013.,07-2140.
PartiesMaribel NEGRÓN-ALMEDA et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. Carlos Gabriel SANTIAGO et al., Defendants, Appellants. Puerto Rico Trade and Export Company, Putative Intervenor, Appellant.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)

Susana I. Peñagarícano-Brown, Assistant Solicitor General, with whom Salvador J. Antonetti-Stutts, Solicitor General, Mariana D. Negrón-Vargas, Deputy Solicitor General, and Maite D. Oronoz-Rodríguez, Deputy Solicitor General, were on brief, for defendants.

Eyck O. Lugo-Rivera, with whom Lauracelis Roques-Arroyo and Martínez Odell & Calabria, were on brief, for putative intervenor.

Claudio Aliff-Ortiz, with whom Michael Craig McCall, Eliezer Aldarondo-Ortiz, Sheila Torres-Delgado, and Aldarondo & López Bras, were on brief, for plaintiffs.

Before TORRUELLA, Circuit Judge, SELYA, Senior Circuit Judge, and HOWARD, Circuit Judge.

SELYA, Senior Circuit Judge.

Following a jury verdict in an employment discrimination case premised on a claim of political connivance, the district court used its equitable powers to augment the verdict. That action, along with the court's refusal to allow the affected public corporation to intervene in the post-verdict proceedings, have produced a series of conundra, with which we must now grapple.

After careful consideration of a meandering record, we reverse the court's grant of equitable relief in the nature of both reinstatement and backpay. Recognizing, however, that there is still work to be done — on these particular facts, the issue of reinstatement is potentially subject to resurrection — we vacate its order denying intervention to the agency and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

We rehearse here only the bare facts needed to place these appeals into perspective. In charting this course, we assume the reader's familiarity with our earlier opinion in Peguero-Moronta v. Santiago, 464 F.3d 29 (1st Cir.2006), which involves this litigation and which provides useful background information.

This case, like many political discrimination cases, traces its genesis to the changing of the guard. The precipitating event in this instance was Puerto Rico's 2000 general election, which resulted in the replacement of a New Progressive Party (NPP) governor with one backed by the arch-rival Popular Democratic Party.

The newly-elected governor installed Carlos Santiago as Director of the Commercial Development Administration (CDA). Within weeks of his appointment Santiago personally dismissed two of the plaintiffs, Maribel Negrón-Almeda (Negrón) and Aracelis Gascot-Cuadrado (Gascot). He also approved the decision by his subordinate, Susana Hernández, to dismiss the third plaintiff, Nilda Pérez-Montalvo (Pérez).

The trio brought suit in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico.1 Their complaint rested on the premise that they had been fired for reasons relating to their membership in the NPP, in violation of the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and local law. The complaint described the plaintiffs' federal claims as being brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and sought a gaggle of remedies, including compensatory damages, punitive damages, backpay, front pay, declaratory relief, and injunctive relief (i.e., reinstatement).

Santiago was the only defendant sued in his official capacity and the only defendant against whom the plaintiffs demanded injunctive relief. He was also sued in his individual capacity, as was Hernández and another CDA functionary, Vilma Jiménez.

On March 31, 2004, the district court entered a summary judgment order, which addressed the claims brought against Santiago in his official capacity. The order stated:

As to plaintiffs' section 1983 cause of action against the named Defendants in their official capacity, "[i]t is well settled `that neither a state agency nor a state official acting in his official capacity may be sued for damages in a section 1983 action.'" Wang v. N.H. Bd. of Registration in Med., 55 F.3d 698, 700 (1st Cir. 1995) (citing Johnson v. Rodríguez, 943 F.2d 104, 108 (1st Cir.1991)). "This is so because § 1983 did not abrogate an unconsenting state's Eleventh Amendment immunity from being sued in damages in federal court." Vicenty-Martell v. Estado Libre Asociado De P.R., 48 F.Supp.2d 81, 92 (D.P.R.1999). The court need not go further. Accordingly, Plaintiffs' Section 1983 claims against the named Defendants in their official capacities must be DISMISSED.

At an ensuing trial, the district court twice granted motions for judgment as a matter of law. First, at the end of the plaintiffs' case in chief it granted Jiménez free passage with respect to all claims against her. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). Second, at the close of all the evidence it directed a verdict in favor of the remaining defendants (Santiago and Hernández in their individual capacities on the remaining claims). Id.

The plaintiffs appealed from the latter order. They could have, but did not, appeal the earlier summary judgment. We concluded that the evidence proffered against Santiago and Hernández was sufficient to reach the jury and, therefore, reversed the order from which the appeal had been taken. See Peguero-Moronta, 464 F.3d at 53-54.

The parties retried the case. On March 27, 2007, the district court submitted it to a jury. In pertinent part, the court's instructions on damages informed the jurors, without objection from either side, that "[y]ou should consider the following elements of damages to the extent you find them proved by a preponderance of the evidence, and no others: 1) Net lost wages and benefits to the date of the trial...." The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs awarding them both compensatory and punitive damages.

A flurry of post-verdict motions ensued, beginning with the plaintiffs' motion for an assortment of equitable relief. That relief included reinstatement to their former positions and retroactive contributions to their retirement and Social Security accounts. The defendants objected on various grounds, noting among other things that the requested relief was unavailable because the Commonwealth was not a party to the action and no official-capacity defendant remained before the court. The defendants also argued that, in the circumstances at hand, reinstatement was inappropriate.

On April 30, 2007, the district court rejected the defendants' arguments and granted the requested relief. The court specified that reinstatement should "include benefits in the government employees' retirement system and the Social Security Administration." The court declared "that it was never its intention to bar Plaintiffs from seeking and obtaining equitable relief at the time of the [2004] dismissal of their monetary claims against Defendants in their official capacities."

Within ten days, the defendants moved for clarification. They later characterized this motion as a motion to alter or amend the judgment, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) — a characterization that we accept. No matter how a party titles it, "a post-judgment motion made within ten days of the entry of judgment that questions the correctness of a judgment is properly construed as a motion to alter or amend judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e)." Global Naps, Inc. v. Verizon New Engl., Inc., 489 F.3d 13, 25 (1st Cir.2007) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

The defendants' motion raised Eleventh Amendment concerns and queried whether the benefits awarded were meant to be retroactive. The plaintiffs served an opposition that denigrated the defendants' Eleventh Amendment concerns and supported retroactive application of the order for benefits. The defendants filed a surreply, in which they cited this court's opinion in Figueroa-Rodríguez v. Aquino, 863 F.2d 1037 (1st Cir.1988), for the proposition that backpay could not be awarded against an individual employee but only against an employer.

The district court overrode the defendants' objections and confirmed that it had intended to grant, and was granting, retroactive benefits against the defendants in their individual capacities. The court shrugged off the statement in Figueroa-Rodríguez to the effect that a backpay award "must be paid by or on behalf of the employer by definition," id. at 1043 n. 7, saying that the court there already had determined that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and, thus, the quoted statement was dictum.

In a closely related disposition, made on the same day, the court denied a motion to intervene filed by the Puerto Rico Trade and Export Company (COMEX). That aspect of the court's ruling deserves further amplification.

COMEX, a public corporation, see P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 7, § 1227q, is arguably the successor-in-interest to the CDA (the extent to which that is so is a matter in dispute among the parties, and we do not purpose to resolve it here). COMEX filed its motion to intervene approximately one month after the district court's initial post-verdict grant of equitable relief. It suggested that the motion was timely in light of the fact that it had no notice of its exposure until the district court suddenly resurrected the previously dismissed claims against Santiago in his official capacity.2 COMEX maintained that, given this unexpected turn of events, it deserved an opportunity to oppose reinstatement and other forms of equitable relief that it would have to effectuate.

In an accompanying Rule 59(e) motion, filed provisionally, COMEX contended that any grant of equitable relief had to be annulled because (i) neither it nor the CDA was a party to the action and (ii) the district court lacked authority to revisit its 2004 summary judgment that terminated the official-capacity claims against Santiago. Alternatively, COMEX argued that it was not the same entity as the CDA (which no longer existed) and that no...

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