Figueroa-Rodriguez v. Aquino

Decision Date01 February 1988
Docket NumberNo. 87-1512,FIGUEROA-RODRIGUEZ,87-1512
Citation863 F.2d 1037
PartiesMiguel A., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. Jorge L. AQUINO, etc., et al., Defendants, Appellants. . Heard
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Vannessa Ramirez, Asst. Sol. Gen., with whom Rafael Ortiz Carrion, Sol. Gen., and Norma Cotti Cruz, Deputy Sol. Gen., were on brief for defendants, appellants.

A.J. Amadeo Murga for plaintiffs, appellees.

Before CAMPBELL, Chief Judge, TORRUELLA and SELYA, Circuit Judges.


The plaintiff, Miguel A. Figueroa-Rodriguez, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 (1982) against defendants, the Puerto Rico Commercial Development Company ("CDC" or "Company"), Jorge L. Aquino, a former Executive Director of the CDC, and Atilano Cordero Badillo, Puerto Rico's Secretary of Commerce and the President of the CDC. 1 Figueroa claimed, inter alia, that Aquino violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments when he dismissed Figueroa from his position as Assistant Director of Administration of the CDC. Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 100 S.Ct. 1287, 63 L.Ed.2d 574 (1980); Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976). See generally Jimenez Fuentes v. Torres Gaztambide, 807 F.2d 236 (1st Cir.1986) (en banc). Seeking damages and reinstatement to his former position, Figueroa alleged he was terminated because he is an active member of the Partido Nuevo Progresista ("PNP") which lost Puerto Rico's 1984 gubernatorial election to the Partido Popular Democratico ("PPD").

Defendants moved for summary judgment both on the merits of plaintiff's claim under current legal standards and on the issue of whether Aquino was shielded from damages liability by the doctrine of qualified immunity. The district court denied this motion. The case was tried to a jury, and at the conclusion of Figueroa's case Aquino moved for a directed verdict, again claiming the protection of qualified immunity. The district court denied this motion. The jury rendered a verdict for Figueroa, awarding him $25,000 in compensatory damages. In the judgment thereafter entered, the district court not only awarded this sum to Figueroa against Aquino but also ordered the CDC and its current Executive Director to reinstate Figueroa to his former position, and ordered them and Aquino to reimburse Figueroa for back pay. Aquino moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, asking the district court to reconsider its denial of qualified immunity in light of this court's recent decision in Mendez-Palou v. Rohena-Betancourt, 813 F.2d 1255 (1st Cir.1987). Defendants also asked the court under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) to amend its judgment, arguing that the CDC is immune from the award of back pay under the Eleventh Amendment and, in the alternative, that the back pay award should be reduced by Figueroa's interim earnings. The district court denied both motions without giving reasons. Defendants now appeal from the denial of their post-trial motions. 2 We conclude that Aquino was entitled to qualified immunity and hence strike the $25,000 in compensatory damages. We also remand to the district court for further proceedings regarding the award of back pay.


The following facts are not in dispute. Figueroa was appointed as the Assistant Director of Administration of the CDC in 1977. He occupied that position until January 1985 when he was fired by defendant Aquino. Figueroa is an active member of the PNP, and his political affiliation was a well-known fact in the Company. After eight consecutive years in power the PNP lost the general elections to the PPD in November 1984. The new Secretary of Commerce, Atilano Cordero, appointed Aquino, with the consent of the Governor of Puerto Rico, to the position of Executive Director of the CDC. Aquino is a member of the PPD. Shortly after assuming the position of Executive Director in January 1985 Aquino fired Figueroa and appointed a member of the PPD to replace him. It is undisputed that Aquino fired Figueroa because of the latter's political affiliation. At trial, the only real issue regarding the merits of Figueroa's claim to have been unconstitutionally discharged was whether party affiliation was an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the position of Assistant Director of Administration. See Branti, 445 U.S. at 518, 100 S.Ct. at 1294-95. The jury, in arriving at a general verdict for plaintiff, necessarily found that, under the law current at the time of trial, party affiliation was not an appropriate requirement for this position. 3

This appeal is not from the jury's determination of the merits of Figueroa's substantive claim--in particular, its implied conclusion that party affiliation was not an appropriate consideration for his position. Rather, the issue before us is whether the court below erred in denying Aquino's claim that he enjoyed qualified immunity from damages. 4 While the former would relate to whether Figueroa was protected from patronage dismissal under present law as construed by the court, the latter examines whether the law at the time of Figueroa's dismissal was clearly established that he enjoyed such protection. We have recently discussed this critical distinction:

We emphasize at the outset ... that in deciding this qualified immunity issue, we do not resolve close questions of fact or law related to the merits of the plaintiff's claim in light of the law as it exists today. The applicable standards, as derived from the general rule enunciated in Mendez-Palou, reflect the state of the law in early 1985, when [PPD]-appointed officials actually implemented the employment decisions that have resulted in the flood of "patronage dismissal" cases from Puerto Rico. Being particularized reflections of the general state of the law at the time, they are useful only for the narrow purpose of determining what were not clearly "protected" governmental positions. In short, our task in disposing of the qualified immunity question is to ascertain "what a reasonable person would have known as to the state of the law" at the time of the alleged unlawful acts, "not what the actual answer is" in the particular case.

Rodriguez-Burgos v. Electric Energy Authority, 853 F.2d 31, 34 (1st Cir.1988) (citations omitted) (defendant entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity from damages but not to summary judgment on merits of plaintiff's claims for injunctive relief). See also Goyco de Maldonado v. Rivera, 849 F.2d 683, 686 (1st Cir.1988) (distinguishing between standard applied to review of preliminary injunction, qualified immunity, and merits).

By January 1985 it had, of course, been clearly established in decisions of the Supreme Court that a state employee could not be removed for partisan political reasons from a job as to which party affiliation was not an appropriate requirement for its effective performance. Branti, 445 U.S. at 518, 100 S.Ct. at 1294-95. But the question of what government jobs appropriately included the ingredient of political affiliation was at that time a matter of considerable uncertainty, as the case law in this circuit since then well demonstrates.

The crux of the difficulty lay in determining those upper level management positions that a newly elected governor must constitutionally be allowed the option of filling with like-minded colleagues if meaning is to be given to the electoral mandate. To hold that party affiliation was an inappropriate criterion for most all of Puerto Rico's executive level positions, as our dissenting colleague Judge Torruella construes Elrod and Branti to mean, would force a new chief executive to govern through a bureaucracy responsive to officials appointed by a political rival--often a rival whom the voters have just rejected at the polls. Numerous decisions of this court, beginning in 1985 after the events here in question, have sought to trace the difficult line that divides executive positions where party affiliation is an appropriate criterion from the lesser or specialist offices where party affiliation has no constitutionally cognizable role to play.

The question here is thus whether it was objectively clear in January 1985, before the appearance of any of this court's precedent in the recent flood of Puerto Rico political firing cases, that Figueroa's Assistant Director position was one to which political affiliation lacked a valid relation. For us to determine this, our above precedent requires that we look, first, at the extent to which the CDC was involved in politically sensitive activities and, second, at the extent to which Figueroa's position could influence those activities. See Mendez-Palou, 813 F.2d at 1260-63; Rodriguez-Burgos, 853 F.2d at 35; Goyco de Maldonado, 849 F.2d at 684-85. While the qualified immunity inquiry is ultimately a question of law, see Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 528, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2816, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985); DeAbadia v. Izquierdo Mora, 792 F.2d 1187, 1191 (1st Cir.1986), it may also necessitate determining certain of the essential facts. See Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987). The underlying facts that inform the qualified immunity inquiry in a case like this concern "the nature of the job responsibilities relative to the government agency's undertakings that might be subject to partisan political disputes." Rodriguez-Burgos, 853 F.2d at 35. The material evidence on this was fully developed here at trial, 5 and while there were some facts in dispute, we do not think the resolution of these one way or the other would have any effect on Aquino's right to qualified immunity. We believe that under any version of the evidence Aquino was entitled, as a matter of law, to prevail on his claim of qualified immunity. We, therefore, hold that he was entitled to a directed verdict on that issue.

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