Angel v. La Joya Independent School District, 112917 FED5, 15-41099

Docket Nº:15-41099
Opinion Judge:PRISCILLA R. OWEN, CIRCUIT JUDGE:
Party Name:FELIPE DEL ANGEL; BELINDA RENEE GARCIA; ALBERTO GUERRERO; ANSELMO BARRERA; ARACELI MONTES, et al. Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. LA JOYA INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT; JOEL GARCIA, SR.; JUAN JOSE GARZA, also known as J. J.; JESUS AVENDANO, also known as Chuy; OSCAR SALINAS, also known as Coach; RICARDO VILLARREAL; ESPERANZA OCHOA, also known as Espi; ...
Judge Panel:Before WIENER, PRADO, and OWEN, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:November 29, 2017
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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FELIPE DEL ANGEL; BELINDA RENEE GARCIA; ALBERTO GUERRERO; ANSELMO BARRERA; ARACELI MONTES, et al. Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

LA JOYA INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT; JOEL GARCIA, SR.; JUAN JOSE GARZA, also known as J. J.; JESUS AVENDANO, also known as Chuy; OSCAR SALINAS, also known as Coach; RICARDO VILLARREAL; ESPERANZA OCHOA, also known as Espi; JUAN JOSE PENA, also known as JJ; JOHNN V. ALANIZ, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 15-41099

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

November 29, 2017

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas USDC No. 7:14-CV-303

Before WIENER, PRADO, and OWEN, Circuit Judges.

PRISCILLA R. OWEN, CIRCUIT JUDGE: [*]

Twenty-nine employees of the La Joya Independent School District sued the school district, the seven members of the school district's Board of Trustees, a Hidalgo County Commissioner, and one school administrator, asserting state tort and federal constitutional claims for employment political retaliation. All Plaintiffs alleged that they suffered adverse employment action because they did not support the political group to which all individual Defendants belonged. The district court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss all claims for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. We affirm.

I

Twenty-nine plaintiffs (Plaintiffs), all of whom were employees of the La Joya Independent School District (LJISD) at the time relevant to their complaint, sued LJISD and nine named individuals, asserting state tort and federal constitutional claims for employment political retaliation. The following are factual allegations in the Plaintiffs' Third Amended Petition, which we accept as true for purposes of this appeal.

Defendant Joe Flores was County Commissioner for Hidalgo County Precinct 3 and the "de facto financial head of a political organization/faction known at 'Team Liberty'" at all times relevant to the claims asserted. Flores used his influence and control over western Hidalgo County politics, including the LJISD Board of Trustees and LJISD supervisory employees, "as a tool to punish the Plaintiffs for their failure to support Team Liberty in LJISD elections of interest" to Flores. Through Team Liberty, Flores has effectively controlled the LJISD Board of Trustees since 2012. Flores recruits and selects candidates to run for positions on the Board, and "[i]n return, the successful candidates use their positions as Board members to reward Team Liberty supporters, punish LJISD employees who do not support Team Liberty candidates, and further Flores' political and financial agenda."

The complaint alleged that each Plaintiff had "supported an opposition candidate, or failed to provide requested support to 'Team Liberty.'" It continued that "Flores and the other Individual Defendants took adverse employment action against all of the Plaintiffs, including termination, demotion, transfer, reassignment, or refusal to hire, in retaliation for their protected activities." The complaint further alleged facts that describe Flores's allegedly illegal political activities not at issue in this lawsuit, and the complaint stated that "[w]ith respect to all of the employment actions taken against the Plaintiffs, either the Defendant Flores-controlled LJISD Board of trustees itself, [or] the LJISD Superintendent pursuant to the authority delegated by the Flores-controlled Board, took the complained-of action." The LJISD superintendent was not named as a defendant.

The complaint described the purportedly adverse employment actions taken with respect to all twenty-nine Plaintiffs and alleged, among other things, violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court construed the complaint as raising claims for both individual and municipal liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, conspiracy to violate Plaintiffs' civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), state law civil conspiracy, and state law tortious interference with employment relations. The complaint described injuries including "mental pain and anguish because of Defendants' wrongful acts; injury to [Plaintiffs'] good name[s], character[s] and to their general and professional reputation[s]; embarrassment and humiliation; and loss of enjoyment of life."

Plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in state court, and Defendants removed to federal court. Defendant Joe Flores filed an unopposed motion to dismiss the causes of action against him pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(m) for lack of service, which the district court granted.

After Plaintiffs amended their complaint at the district court's request, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss in part for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and in part for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Rule 12(b)(6), or, in the alternative, a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c). In opposing the motion, Plaintiffs asked for leave to again amend their complaint. The district court granted the Defendants' motion, dismissing all of Plaintiffs' claims for failure to state a claim, and denied Plaintiffs leave to amend. This appeal followed.

II

This Court reviews a district court's ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim de novo, applying the same standard as the district court.1 "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'"2 A claim is plausible on its face "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged."[3]

III

We first consider the claims against the individual Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which establishes that anyone who, "under color of" state law, deprives another of rights granted by the Constitution is liable for that deprivation. "A section 1983 complaint must state specific facts, not simply legal and constitutional conclusions."4 "Misuse of power, possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law, is action taken 'under color of state law.'"[5] "Well settled Section 1983 jurisprudence establishes that supervisory officials cannot be held vicariously liable for their subordinates' actions. Supervisory officials may be held liable only if: (i) they affirmatively participate in acts that cause constitutional deprivation; or (ii) implement unconstitutional policies that causally result in plaintiff's injury."6

"[T]he Supreme Court has consistently held that 'the First Amendment forbids government officials to discharge or threaten to discharge public employees solely for not being supporters of the political party in power, unless party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the position involved.'"7This doctrine also applies "when an employment decision is based upon support of and loyalty to a particular candidate as distinguished from a political party."8 A plaintiff asserting a First Amendment employment retaliation claim "must show that (1) an adverse employment action was taken, (2) speech involving a matter of public concern was uttered, (3) the employee's interest in speaking outweighs the employer's interest in efficiency, and (4) the protected speech precipitated the adverse employment action."9"Employer actions that can result in liability include more than just actual or constructive discharge from employment. Adverse employment actions can include discharges, demotions, refusals to hire, refusals to promote, and reprimands, " as well as a transfer that is "equivalent to a demotion."10

With respect to the twelve plaintiffs that the district court concluded had failed to allege that political activity was "a substantial or motivating factor of any alleged adverse employment action, " Plaintiffs...

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