Correa-Martinez v. Arrillaga-Belendez

Decision Date07 March 1990
Docket NumberP,ARRILLAGA-BELENDEZ,No. 89-2011,CORREA-MARTINE,89-2011
Citation903 F.2d 49
PartiesJorgelaintiff, Appellant, v. Rene, et al., Defendants, Appellees. . Heard
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Charles S. Hey Maestre, Rio Piedras, P.R., for plaintiff, appellant.

Zuleika Llovet, Hato Rey, P.R., with whom Hector Rivera-Cruz, Bayamon, P.R., Secretary of Justice, Jorge I. Perez-Diaz, Sol. Gen., John F. Nevares, and Saldana, Rey, Moran & Alvarado, Hato Rey, P.R., were on brief, for defendants, appellees.

Before BREYER, TORRUELLA and SELYA, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

Invoking 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 (1982), plaintiff-appellant Jorge Correa-Martinez (Correa) sued three jurists in federal district court. Asking that the judges be judged, Correa-Martinez alleged that he had been forced to resign from the judicial branch of Puerto Rico's government in violation of his due process and first amendment rights. The district court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal, we take the well-pleaded facts as they appear in the complaint, indulging every reasonable inference in plaintiff's favor. See Dartmouth Review v. Dartmouth College, 889 F.2d 13, 16 (1st Cir.1989); Gooley v. Mobil Oil Corp., 851 F.2d 513, 514 (1st Cir.1988).

The administrative arm of the Puerto Rico judicial system is formally known as the Office of Court Administration of the General Court of Justice (OCA). 1 There are two personnel classifications within the judicial branch, Uniform Service and Central Service. "Officers and employees of the Uniform Service may be suspended or dismissed only for just cause prior to the formulation of charges, and they shall have the right to defend themselves and be heard in the manner provided by law." P.R.Laws Ann. tit. 4, Appx. XIII, Reg. 16 (1978) (district court's translation). In contrast, "[o]fficers and employees of the Central Service, except judges, may be suspended or dismissed by the Nominating Authority in its discretion." Id.

Correa toiled in OCA's vineyards from 1981 through 1988. When originally hired, he received an engagement letter telling him that he was being named to a "trust" position in the Central Service. 2 The letter also warned that continued employment was dependent upon his "efficiency, attitude, availability and compliance with the regulations in effect." Although he started at a lower rank, Correa served for several years as Executive Director I, Guayama Judicial Region. He describes his functions as "essentially administrative in character." His performance evaluations were uniformly favorable and led to a number of merit-related pay increases.

Near the end of 1988, the halcyon days drew to a close. Judge Juan-Alvarez became the interim administrator of the Guayama Judicial Region and asked plaintiff to resign. Plaintiff complied. His resignation was officially accepted by Judge Arrillaga-Belendez. The complaint alleges that defendants did not afford Correa a hearing and gave no reason for forcing him to quit.

Plaintiff now attacks on two fronts. Contending that he possessed a "clear and substantial property interest" in continued employment at OCA, he maintains that his constructive discharge, unaccompanied by any hearing or explanation, violated procedural due process. Asserting simultaneously that the defendants cashiered him because of his close association with a former administrative judge, he maintains that his ouster ran afoul of the first amendment.

The district court found both offensives lacking in firepower and dismissed the complaint. The court ruled that Correa, as a trust employee in the Central Service, had no property interest in his position and could thus be fired in the employer's discretion without notice or hearing. The court also rejected the first amendment claim, stating that "[m]ere personal and political differences between the defendants and a third party ... cannot support the allegations of political discrimination against plaintiff." This appeal ensued.

II. PRINCIPLES AFFECTING APPELLATE REVIEW

In the Rule 12(b)(6) milieu, an appellate court operates under the same constraints that bind the district court, that is, we may affirm a dismissal for failure to state a claim only if it clearly appears, according to the facts alleged, that the plaintiff cannot recover on any viable theory. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-48, 78 S.Ct. 99, 101-03, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957); Dartmouth Review, 889 F.2d at 16. In making that critical determination, we accept plaintiff's well-pleaded factual averments and indulge every reasonable inference hospitable to his case. Gooley, 851 F.2d at 514.

In the menagerie of the Civil Rules, the tiger patrolling the courthouse gates is rather tame, but "not entirely ... toothless." Dartmouth Review, 889 F.2d at 16. Despite the highly deferential reading which we accord a litigant's complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), we need not credit bald assertions, periphrastic circumlocutions, unsubstantiated conclusions, or outright vituperation. See Chongris v. Board of Appeals, 811 F.2d 36, 37 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 483 U.S. 1021, 107 S.Ct. 3266, 97 L.Ed.2d 765 (1987). Moreover, the rule does not entitle a plaintiff to rest on "subjective characterizations" or conclusory descriptions of "a general scenario which could be dominated by unpleaded facts." Dewey v. Univ. of New Hampshire, 694 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir.1982), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 944, 103 S.Ct. 2121, 77 L.Ed.2d 1301 (1983). We understand that, for pleading purposes, the dividing line between sufficient facts and insufficient conclusions "is often blurred." Dartmouth Review, 889 F.2d at 16. But the line must be plotted:

It is only when such conclusions are logically compelled, or at least supported, by the stated facts, that is, when the suggested inference rises to what experience indicates is an acceptable level of probability, that 'conclusions' become 'facts' for pleading purposes.

Id.

There is another principle at work as well. We have frequently recognized that, in cases where civil rights violations are alleged, particular care is required to balance the liberality of the Civil Rules with the need to prevent abusive and unfair vexation of defendants. See, e.g., id.; Dewey, 694 F.2d at 3; Slotnick v. Staviskey, 560 F.2d 31, 33 (1st Cir.1977), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1077, 98 S.Ct. 1268, 55 L.Ed.2d 783 (1978). A civil rights complaint must "outline facts sufficient to convey specific instances of unlawful discrimination." Dartmouth Review, 889 F.2d at 16. Put another way, a plaintiff may not prevail simply by asserting an inequity and tacking on the self-serving conclusion that the defendant was motivated by a discriminatory animus. The alleged facts must specifically identify the particular instance(s) of discriminatory treatment and, as a logical exercise, adequately support the thesis that the discrimination was unlawful. See Dartmouth Review, 889 F.2d at 20; see also Keyes v. Secretary of the Navy, 853 F.2d 1016, 1026-27 (1st Cir.1988); Johnson v. General Elec. Co., 840 F.2d 132, 138 (1st Cir.1988); Springer v. Seaman, 821 F.2d 871, 880 (1st Cir.1987). Discrimination based on unprotected characteristics or garden-variety unfairness will not serve.

With these precepts squarely in mind, we proceed to evaluate Correa's allegations.

III. THE DUE PROCESS CLAIM

As a prerequisite to his due process claim, plaintiff must demonstrate the existence of a constitutionally cognizable property or liberty interest. See Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 701, 96 S.Ct. 1155, 1160, 47 L.Ed.2d 405 (1976). Correa seeks to scale this hurdle by alleging that he had a property interest in his employment. He falls far short.

Constitutionally protected property interests originate in extra-constitutional sources; they are "created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law...." Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 2709, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972); accord Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 538, 105 S.Ct. 1487, 1491, 84 L.Ed.2d 494 (1985); Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 344, 96 S.Ct. 2074, 2077, 48 L.Ed.2d 684 (1976); Rosario-Torres v. Hernandez-Colon, 889 F.2d 314, 319 (1st Cir.1989) (en banc); Ruiz-Roche v. Lausell, 848 F.2d 5, 7 (1st Cir.1988). Here, plaintiff claims to derive his property interest principally from the circumstances of his hiring.

Correa acknowledges that OCA's engagement letter notified him that he had been named to a trust position in the Central Service. 3 He also concedes that Central Service employees are subject to dismissal at the employer's discretion. See P.R.Laws Ann. tit. 4, Appx. XIII, Reg. 16. These verities notwithstanding, Correa argues that the written confirmation of his particular appointment "tempered" the ramifications normally attendant to the post. In this respect, he points out that the engagement letter admonished that "your permanency in the [position] will depend upon your efficiency, attitude, disposition and ... compliance with regulations in effect" from time to time. Plaintiff suggests that OCA thereby limited its discretion, granting him job security so long as he fulfilled these few written conditions.

Appellant's thesis boils down to the idea that the engagement letter ex proprio vigore comprised an independent source for a legitimate expectation of continued employment, and hence, for a property interest. We give Correa high marks for ingenuity but a failing grade in persuasion. The engagement letter clearly informed plaintiff that he was being hired to a trust position. He accepted the characterization then--and must accept it now. Trust employees may be freely dismissed in the discretion of the nominating authority (here, OCA);...

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