Lamboy–ortiz v. Ortiz–vÉlez, No. 09–1640.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBefore TORRUELLA, LIPEZ, and HOWARD, Circuit Judges.
Citation630 F.3d 228
Docket NumberNo. 09–1640.
Decision Date17 December 2010
PartiesLt. Pedro J. LAMBOY–ORTIZ; Sgt. Roberto Figueroa–Montalvo; et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants,v.Miguel G. ORTIZ–VÉLEZ, in his official capacity as Mayor of the Municipality of Sabana Grande, Defendant, Appellee,Miguel Pereira, in his official capacity as former Superintendent of Police of Puerto Rico; Victor Rivera, in his official capacity as Superintendent of Police of Puerto Rico; Miguel G. Ortiz–Vélez, in his personal capacity as Mayor of the Municipality of Sabana Grande; Marisol Vargas–Santiago, policewoman, in her personal capacity and in her official capacity as Officer of the Police of Puerto Rico; Colonel Cesar Gracia–Ortiz, in his personal capacity and in his official capacity as Assistant Superintendent of the Police of Puerto Rico; Lt. Emilio Laboy–Castillo, in his personal capacity and in his official capacity as Police Commander of the Police of Puerto Rico in Sabana Grande; José Santana–Pérez, policeman, in his personal capacity and in his official capacity as member of the Police of Puerto Rico; Unknown Defendants A–Z; Unknown Employer ABC, Defendants.

630 F.3d 228
94 Empl.
Prac. Dec. P 44,065

Lt. Pedro J. LAMBOY–ORTIZ; Sgt. Roberto Figueroa–Montalvo; et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
Miguel G. ORTIZ–VÉLEZ, in his official capacity as Mayor of the Municipality of Sabana Grande, Defendant, Appellee,Miguel Pereira, in his official capacity as former Superintendent of Police of Puerto Rico; Victor Rivera, in his official capacity as Superintendent of Police of Puerto Rico; Miguel G. Ortiz–Vélez, in his personal capacity as Mayor of the Municipality of Sabana Grande; Marisol Vargas–Santiago, policewoman, in her personal capacity and in her official capacity as Officer of the Police of Puerto Rico; Colonel Cesar Gracia–Ortiz, in his personal capacity and in his official capacity as Assistant Superintendent of the Police of Puerto Rico; Lt. Emilio Laboy–Castillo, in his personal capacity and in his official capacity as Police Commander of the Police of Puerto Rico in Sabana Grande; José Santana–Pérez, policeman, in his personal capacity and in his official capacity as member of the Police of Puerto Rico; Unknown Defendants A–Z; Unknown Employer ABC, Defendants.

No. 09–1640.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

Heard June 9, 2010.Decided Dec. 17, 2010.


[630 F.3d 231]

Francisco J. González–Magaz, with whom Francisco R. González Law Office was on brief, for appellants.Johanna M. Emmanuelli Huertas, with whom The Law Offices of Pedro E. Ortiz Álvarez, PSC was on brief, for appellee.Before TORRUELLA, LIPEZ, and HOWARD, Circuit Judges.LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

This appeal involves an award of close to $130,000 in attorney's fees against unsuccessful civil rights plaintiffs and over $60,000 in sanctions against plaintiffs' counsel personally. Plaintiffs, who survived various dispositive motions and proceeded to a jury trial on their claims, argue that their lawsuit was not so unfounded or unreasonable as to justify an award of fees to the defendant in a civil rights lawsuit. We agree and therefore vacate the fee award.

We conclude, however, that the district court did not abuse its discretion in imposing sanctions on plaintiffs' counsel, whose vexatious conduct and manifest disrespect of the district court proceedings stand out even in the dry pages of the record on appeal. Still, the amount of the sanction far exceeds what could be justified in the name of deterrence. We therefore reduce the sanction to $5,000.

I.

Plaintiffs Pedro Lamboy–Ortiz (Lamboy–Ortiz) and Roberto Figueroa–Montalvo (Figueroa–Montalvo) were formerly employed as policemen in the municipality of Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico, and are members of Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party (NPP). In this lawsuit, Lamboy–Ortiz and Figueroa–Montalvo alleged that the defendants, including the Mayor of Sabana Grande and various members of the Sabana Grande and Puerto Rico Police, each of whom belongs to the opposition Popular Democratic Party (PDP), conspired to deprive them of their civil rights and effectively remove them from the local police force.

A. Events Underlying the Plaintiffs' Civil Rights Suit1

The dispute has its roots in an incident that allegedly occurred on December 15, 2001 in the Sabana Grande police station, on the day of a visit to Sabana Grande by Sila Calderón, then Governor of Puerto Rico and leader of the PDP. In anticipation of the governor's arrival, Mayor Miguel Ortiz–Vélez called the police station and asked for an officer to be dispatched to the Sabana Grande City Hall to pick up a framed picture of the governor for display in the police station. Marisol Vargas–Santiago (Vargas–Santiago) was on duty at the station's main desk and received the call. She responded to the Mayor's call by detailing officer José Santana–Pérez (Santana–Pérez) to retrieve the picture.

What happened upon Santana–Pérez's return is contested. Officer Vargas–Santiago

[630 F.3d 232]

alleges that Sergeant Figueroa–Montalvo made offensive comments about Governor Calderón during the portrait's hanging,2 and that Lieutenant Lamboy–Ortiz, who was Assistant Commander of the Sabana Grande District and the officer responsible for supervising the station at the time, indicated his agreement with Figueroa–Montalvo's off-color comments. Figueroa–Montalvo and Lamboy–Ortiz have denied that there were any such comments. Of the witnesses present at the time of the alleged comments, the only one who has corroborated Vargas–Santiago's account—Santana-Pérez—appears to have later recanted.3

Nonetheless, Vargas–Santiago filed administrative charges shortly after the alleged incident, precipitating a comprehensive internal investigation. Responsibility for the investigation initially rested with defendant Emilio Laboy–Castillo (Laboy–Castillo), Commander of the Puerto Rico Police in Sabana Grande, but was later transferred to an officer from the Office for Public Integrity. Over the course of several months, the investigators interviewed more than ten potential witnesses to the alleged offensive comments, many of whom were questioned on several occasions.

Within a month or so of the alleged comments, both plaintiffs were transferred out of Sabana Grande to different districts. Lamboy–Ortiz was reassigned to the district of Mayagüez immediately following the incident, apparently to fill a staffing need. Figueroa–Montalvo was transferred to Ponce the next month, after complaints from defendant Vargas–Santiago that she was afraid of sharing a shift with him.4

In January 2002, in the early stages of the internal investigation, Commander Laboy–Castillo ordered Lamboy–Ortiz and Figueroa–Montalvo to meet with the Assistant District Attorney. Criminal charges were filed against both men the same day, listing Laboy–Castillo as the accusing witness. Figueroa–Montalvo was charged with breach of the peace under Article 260 of the Puerto Rico Penal Code, which criminalizes the use of “vulgar, profane or indecent language in the presence ... of women or children.” P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 33, § 4521(c). Lamboy–Ortiz, in turn, was charged with a violation of Article 214 of the Penal Code, “noncompliance with duty,” for failure to curb Figueroa–Montalvo's

[630 F.3d 233]

alleged improper behavior. See id. § 4365. Each violation was punishable by a maximum prison sentence of six months and/or a fine of up to $500.

Lamboy–Ortiz and Figueroa–Montalvo subsequently received letters in December 2002 from the Superintendent of the Puerto Rico Police, defendant Miguel Pereira, informing them that they were being suspended as a result of the improper conduct allegedly uncovered by the internal investigation. The letters further declared the Superintendent's intention to expel them.

The officers were not expelled, however. Lamboy–Ortiz and Figueroa–Montalvo each appealed their suspension through administrative channels, and the sanction against each was reduced in 2003 to five months of suspension without pay.5 The criminal proceedings also eventually resolved favorably for the plaintiffs: in January 2004, a commonwealth court found both officers not guilty of their respective criminal charges.

B. Procedural History

The plaintiffs filed suit in December 2002, naming as defendants Mayor Ortiz–Vélez and a number of police personnel involved in the administrative investigations into and actions taken against the plaintiffs. At the heart of the plaintiffs' complaint was the firm conviction that Mayor Ortiz–Vélez had orchestrated the various adverse actions taken against them, purportedly to fulfill a campaign pledge to oust NPP members from the Sabana Grande police force.

The plaintiffs' suit rested on three interrelated claims.6 First, the plaintiffs asserted a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for political discrimination in violation of the First Amendment, alleging that they were targeted by defendants because of their association with the NPP. The plaintiffs' second claim, also under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleged deprivation of Fourteenth Amendment due process rights in connection with the administrative investigations and actions against them. Third, the plaintiffs brought a pendent claim under the Puerto Rico Anti–Discrimination Act (also known as Law 100), which provides a cause of action for, among other things, employment discrimination on the basis of political affiliation. See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, § 146.

Defendants filed several dispositive motions prior to the trial. In April 2003, Mayor Ortiz–Vélez moved to dismiss the suit under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that the plaintiffs had failed to allege, inter alia, the Mayor's personal involvement in the challenged conduct, that he had acted under color of law, or that he was part of a conspiracy in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The other defendants followed suit with a joint motion to dismiss shortly thereafter. In a July 2003 order, the district court largely denied the defendants' motions, granting dismissal only as to a claim for punitive damages against the Municipality of Sabana Grande.7 In all other respects, the district court found that the plaintiffs had adequately pled facts that could support an

[630 F.3d 234]

actionable § 1983 claim by “outlin [ing] ... a situation where the Mayor's political animosity against them served to trigger a series of events, in which the other defendants willingly participated, and which culminated in adverse employment actions taken against them within the [Puerto Rico Police Department].” 8

In December 2003, Mayor Ortiz–Vélez filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked any direct evidence that the Mayor was involved in the adverse employment actions taken against them, and therefore that there could be no grounds for a claim of political discrimination or denial of due process. Plaintiffs filed their opposition to the motion in March 2004. A month later, the court issued a one-page order denying summary judgment as to the plaintiffs' First Amendment claim,9 finding that “there are genuine issues as to material...

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168 practice notes
  • García-González v. Puig-Morales, No. 12–2357.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • August 1, 2014
    ...a political discrimination case,” Ocasio–Hernández v. Fortuño–Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 17 (1st Cir.2011) (quoting Lamboy–Ortiz v. Ortiz–Vélez, 630 F.3d 228, 240 (1st Cir.2010)), and that “circumstantial evidence must, at times, suffice,” id. Considering all of the evidence on the summary judgmen......
  • Tate v. Ancell, No. 11-3252
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • January 17, 2014
    ...of section 1927, to the extent it provides any guidance, suggests both deterrent and compensatory intent....Lamboy-Ortiz v. Ortiz-Velez, 630 F.3d 228, 247 (1st Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Haynes v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 688 F.3d 984, 987-88......
  • Caraballo v. Commonwealth, Civil No. 13–1309(DRD).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Puerto Rico
    • January 7, 2014
    ...and (4) that political affiliation was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse employment action.” Lamboy–Ortiz v. Ortiz–Velez, 630 F.3d 228, 239 (1st Cir.2010). In order to survive the motion to dismiss stage, a plaintiff must make a fact specific showing that his political affi......
  • Vázquez v. Surillo-Ruiz, Civil No. 13–1944 DRD.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Puerto Rico
    • January 7, 2015
    ...and (4) that political affiliation was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse employment action.” Lamboy–Ortiz v. Ortiz–Velez, 630 F.3d 228, 239 (1st Cir.2010). Evaluating the four-factor test outlined by the First Circuit through the lens of plausibility, the Court determines t......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
169 cases
  • García-González v. Puig-Morales, No. 12–2357.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • August 1, 2014
    ...a political discrimination case,” Ocasio–Hernández v. Fortuño–Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 17 (1st Cir.2011) (quoting Lamboy–Ortiz v. Ortiz–Vélez, 630 F.3d 228, 240 (1st Cir.2010)), and that “circumstantial evidence must, at times, suffice,” id. Considering all of the evidence on the summary judgmen......
  • Tate v. Ancell, No. 11-3252
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • January 17, 2014
    ...of section 1927, to the extent it provides any guidance, suggests both deterrent and compensatory intent....Lamboy-Ortiz v. Ortiz-Velez, 630 F.3d 228, 247 (1st Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Haynes v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 688 F.3d 984, 987-88......
  • Caraballo v. Commonwealth, Civil No. 13–1309(DRD).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Puerto Rico
    • January 7, 2014
    ...and (4) that political affiliation was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse employment action.” Lamboy–Ortiz v. Ortiz–Velez, 630 F.3d 228, 239 (1st Cir.2010). In order to survive the motion to dismiss stage, a plaintiff must make a fact specific showing that his political affi......
  • Vázquez v. Surillo-Ruiz, Civil No. 13–1944 DRD.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Puerto Rico
    • January 7, 2015
    ...and (4) that political affiliation was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse employment action.” Lamboy–Ortiz v. Ortiz–Velez, 630 F.3d 228, 239 (1st Cir.2010). Evaluating the four-factor test outlined by the First Circuit through the lens of plausibility, the Court determines t......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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