Baez-Cruz v. Municipality of Comerio, BAEZ-CRUZ

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBefore SELYA, Circuit Judge, CAMPBELL, Senior Circuit Judge, and BOUDIN; CAMPBELL
Citation140 F.3d 24
PartiesBerta, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. MUNICIPALITY OF COMERIO, et al., Defendants, Appellees. . Heard
Docket NumberNo. 97-1850,BAEZ-CRUZ,97-1850
Decision Date02 December 1997

Charles S. Hey-Maestre, Piedras, PR, with whom Adalina De Jesus-Morales was on brief, for Plaintiffs, Appellants.

Francisco San Miguel Fuxench, San Juan, PR, with whom Miguel Pagan was on brief for Appellee, Municipality of Comerio.

Sigfredo Rodriguez-Isaac, Assistant Solicitor General, with whom Carlos Lugo Fiol, Solicitor General, Edda Serrano Blasini, Deputy Solicitor General, were on brief for individual Appellees.

Before SELYA, Circuit Judge, CAMPBELL, Senior Circuit Judge, and BOUDIN, Circuit Judge.

CAMPBELL, Senior Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs-appellants Berta Baez-Cruz and twenty-three of her former co-workers brought this action in the district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the municipality of Comerio, Puerto Rico, and four of its officials. Plaintiff-appellants alleged that their dismissal from municipal employment was based on their political affiliation in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and the laws of Puerto Rico. Previously, Plaintiffs had sought reinstatement by the Puerto Rico administrative body that handles government employment disputes. That body denied relief to Plaintiffs in a decision that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ultimately affirmed.

Following the Puerto Rico Supreme Court's affirmance, the district court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment. It reasoned that Plaintiffs were collaterally estopped from arguing that their dismissal was politically based by a contrary finding in the Commonwealth proceedings. Plaintiffs have appealed. The question we face is whether, under Puerto Rico law, the administrative body's findings preclude relitigation of Plaintiffs' termination. We affirm.

1. Tension Between Comerio Municipal Employees and the New Comerio Administration

In 1992, the citizens of Comerio elected Defendant Luis Rivera Rivera ("Rivera"), a member of the New Progressive Party (the "NPP"), as their Mayor. That election ended a half-century of rule in Comerio by the Popular Democratic Party (the "PDP"). Other members of the NPP administration included Defendant Domingo Marcano, Internal Auditor; Defendant Rufino Ayalo, Director of Public Works; and Defendant Damian Rivera, Director of Civil Defense. Plaintiffs, all members of the rival PDP, were career municipal employees.

The months following Rivera's assumption of the mayoral post were marked by tension between the municipality and its employees. In their complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that they perceived the new administration to be After Mayor Rivera refused to negotiate, Plaintiffs and those in agreement declared another strike, which directly led to their dismissal. The dismissed employees announced a four-day work stoppage, with a protest on the first day in front of City Hall. Mayor Rivera responded by activating, through Defendant Damian Rivera, the municipality's civil defense to provide Comerio with essential services. Plaintiffs and their fellows saw the civil defense forces as strikebreakers. The City Hall protest led to physical and verbal confrontations between the civil defense force and the strikers.

discriminating against PDP holdovers by subjecting them to sudden transfers, threats, and revocation of privileges. Plaintiffs and other employees protested this perceived mistreatment by declaring a one-day work stoppage. The Municipality admonished the protesters and withheld their pay for the strike day.

Following the work stoppage, the municipality investigated the strike, which, the parties agree, violated Puerto Rico law forbidding municipal employees to strike. The municipality's auditor, Defendant Domingo Marcano, reviewed the municipality personnel department's attendance records to determine who participated in the strike. The Municipality then informed forty-eight employees of their dismissal.

2. The Administrative Proceedings

The forty-eight terminated employees immediately requested a hearing before the Puerto Rico Personnel Administration Systems Appeal Board (known by its Spanish acronym, "JASAP"), the administrative body that handles government employment disputes. See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 3, § 1394(1). JASAP's examining officer recommended that only those employees who could be identified as having participated in the strike be terminated. The investigation positively identified only the twenty-four Plaintiffs in this action. The municipality quickly reinstated the other twenty-four employees, but refused to reinstate the twenty-four Plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs contested the examiner's recommendations before the JASAP. JASAP upheld the examiner, adopting her findings of fact and conclusions of law. As a "Conclusion of Law," the examining officer's report stated that,

The appellant party [the strikers-Plaintiffs] brought to our consideration that the dismissal was due to reasons of political ideology. It arises from evidence that all the employees who participated in the strike belonged to the [PDP]. (Findings of Fact No. 23) Nevertheless, once the administrative hearings were held not all the forty-eight (48) employees who participated in [the] strike were dismissed, but twenty-four (24) employees. There were twenty-four "Populares" [i.e., members of the PDP] who were reinstated after the administrative hearing with the discount of the day.

3. The § 1983 Action

On the same day that JASAP denied Plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration, Plaintiffs brought the instant action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. The complaint alleged that the terminations and prior disciplinary measures violated Plaintiffs' rights conferred by the Federal Constitution to free expression and association, equal protection of the law, and procedural due process. Also included within the federal complaint were claims under the law of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Defendants filed their answer, and, based on the JASAP Report's findings, they moved for summary judgment.

The district court stayed the proceedings, including discovery, while Plaintiffs appealed from the JASAP decision to the Puerto Rico courts. Plaintiffs' appeal was rebuffed at every turn. The Superior Court, the Circuit Court, and, ultimately, by a 3-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico each affirmed JASAP's decision.

Soon after the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico rendered its decision, the district court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment. The district court held that JASAP's determination "that [in the court's words] the sole reason for plaintiffs' dismissal Plaintiffs filed a Rule 59(e) motion to vacate and/or to amend the judgment, arguing that Puerto Rico's rules of collateral estoppel did not preclude relitigation of a factual issue unless the parties in the second suit were identical to the first. The individual officials, defendants here, were not parties to the JASAP proceeding. Thus, Plaintiffs argued, the JASAP decision could not collaterally estop a claim involving these new parties. The district court rejected this contention, and this appeal followed.

was their participation in an illegal strike," collaterally estopped Plaintiffs' political discrimination claim. The district court also held that Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact in their procedural due process claim, and then dismissed without prejudice the remaining claims under Puerto Rico law.

1. Background

To survive summary judgment in a case alleging unconstitutional political discrimination in public employment, an employee must produce evidence that her political affiliation was a "substantial" or "motivating" factor behind the challenged employment decision. Mount Healthy City Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 287, 97 S.Ct. 568, 576, 50 L.Ed.2d 471 (1977); see also Rodriguez-Pinto v. Tirado-Delgado, 982 F.2d 34, 39 (1st Cir.1993). Even if such a link is shown between political affiliation and the adverse employment action, the employee's claim will still fail if the employment decision would have occurred regardless of plaintiff's political affiliation. See Acevedo-Diaz v. Aponte, 1 F.3d 62, 66 (1st Cir.1993).

Here, the district court accurately described the JASAP proceedings as establishing "that the sole reason for Plaintiffs' dismissal was their participation in an illegal strike." The JASAP examiner expressly rejected Plaintiffs' contention that "the dismissal was due to reasons of political ideology," reasoning that the municipality reinstated twenty-four of the forty-eight originally dismissed workers (all of whom shared the same party affiliation) after the hearing examiner had found no proof of their participation in the strike. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court noted this finding in affirming the JASAP decision and concluded that "JASAP did not err when it decided that the action of dismissal of petitioners herein was within the legal frame of action permissible of the municipality." It would not have been permissible for JASAP to have determined that Plaintiffs' termination was lawful under the "merit principle" of Puerto Rico's Personnel Law, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 3, § 1331, if it had found the termination was based on Plaintiffs' political affiliation. See Diaz de Llovet v. Governor, 112 P.R. Offic. Trans. 941, 953-54 (1982) (discussing Branti v. Finkel, 455 U.S. 507 (1980)). A finding for Plaintiffs in the present action would, therefore, necessarily contradict JASAP's prior determination that the dismissals were not based on "reasons of political ideology" but rather on the strike, as affirmed by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court.

The Full Faith and Credit statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, provides that "judicial proceedings ... shall have the same full faith and credit in every cour...

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