Decision Date01 April 2011
Docket NumberNo. 09-2207,09-2207
PartiesCARMEN M. OCASIO-HERNÁNDEZ, et al.,Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. LUIS FORTUÑO-BURSET, et al., Defendants, Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit




[Hon. Gustavo A. Gelpí, U.S. District Judge]


Torruella, Lipez, and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

Carlos A. Del Valle Cruz, with whom Landrón & Vera, Eileen Landrón Guardiola and Eduardo Vera Ramírez were on brief, for appellants.

Michael C. McCall, with whom Aldarondo & López Bras and Eliezer Aldarondo-Ortiz were on brief, for appellees.

LIPEZ, Circuit Judge. This case involves a claim of political discrimination stemming from the 2008 gubernatorial election in Puerto Rico. Fourteen maintenance and domestic workers, all members of Puerto Rico's Popular Democratic Party ("PDP"), brought suit in federal district court alleging that they were unconstitutionally terminated from their public employment at the governor's mansion, La Fortaleza, shortly after the election of Governor Luis Fortuño-Burset ("Fortuño"), President of Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party ("NPP"). The complaint named four principal defendants, in both their individual and official capacities, as well as their spouses and conjugal partnerships: Governor Fortuño, the nominating authority at La Fortaleza; First Lady Luce Vela ("Vela"), the chairperson of a committee for the maintenance, restoration, and preservation of La Fortaleza; Chief of Staff Juan Carlos Blanco ("Blanco"); and Administrator Velmarie Berlingeri Marín ("Berlingeri"). 1 The district court, applying the federal notice pleading standard articulated by the Supreme Court in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), dismissed the workers' complaint for failing to state a plausible claim for relief.

After a careful review of the record and the teachings of Twombly and Iqbal, we conclude that the district court applied the notice pleading standard incorrectly. The allegations in the complaint do state a plausible claim of political discrimination in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. We vacate the dismissal of that claim.

I.A. The Complaint

Because this appeal follows the allowance of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), we recite the facts of the plaintiffs' claim as alleged in the complaint. See SEC v. Tambone, 597 F.3d 436, 438 (1st Cir. 2010) (en banc).

Fortuño was elected Governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on November 4, 2008, and he assumed that office on January 2, 2009. As Governor, he is the nominating authority at La Fortaleza; he approves or disapproves of all personnel decisions relating to employment at the mansion. In early January 2009, Governor Fortuño named defendant Berlingeri Administrator at La Fortaleza, and he signed an executive order authorizing her to terminate employees there on his behalf. He also named defendant Blanco Chief of Staff. As the First Lady of Puerto Rico, defendant Vela chairs the Conservation and Maintenance of La Fortaleza Committee and is responsible for overseeing the mansion; she has publicly acknowledged her personal involvement in overseeing repairs and refurbishing work at La Fortaleza.

Shortly after Governor Fortuño took office, logos, emblems, and flyers supporting the NPP and Governor Fortuño were prominently displayed at La Fortaleza. Employees at the mansion openly discussed their political affiliations, as some NPP-affiliated employees were promoted to high-level trust positions while rumors spread of a list of PDP-affiliated employees who would be terminated and replaced with NPP-affiliated workers. Employees were questioned on multiple occasions, including by Governor Fortuño himself, about the circumstances of their hire at La Fortaleza, which the plaintiffs contend was merely an attempt to ascertain or verify each employee's political affiliation. Indeed, the new administration brought in confidential clerical personnel who interrogated employees for that very purpose.

Governor Fortuño's campaign jingle, "It's time to change," proved to be a recurring theme for employees at La Fortaleza following the change in administration. One of Berlingeri's trusted aides used the jingle as the ringtone on his cellular telephone (which also prominently displayed the NPP logo). He would also loudly sing the jingle in front of the maintenance employees he commanded and would state on occasion that things had indeed changed. Similarly, First Lady Vela informed employees that "changes had come," and she would make disparaging and derogatory comments about the prior PDP administration to employees as they executed their duties. She was also overheard stating her intent to "clean up the kitchen," an apparent reference to an impending change in kitchen staff.

The plaintiffs in this case performed maintenance work or housekeeping tasks at La Fortaleza, such as laundry, ironing, sewing, and cleaning. Some of the plaintiffs had held their positions at the mansion for nearly twenty years. On either February 27 or March 11 of 2009, each of the plaintiffs received a termination letter signed by Berlingeri. They were fired without notice, without cause, and without having their job performance evaluated by the incoming administration. None of the plaintiffs had been known members of the NPP. Within days, their positions at La Fortaleza were filled by NPP-affiliated workers.

In answering press questions about the layoffs at La Fortaleza, Blanco stated falsely that the employees who were terminated had been privy to confidential, sensitive information. In actuality, none of the plaintiffs had held policy-making positions, performed functions similar to those performed by policy-making employees, or had access to confidential information related to policy. Blanco further informed the press, "We are making employment evaluations every month," an assertion belied by the lack of evaluation preceding the plaintiffs' terminations.

The defendants made other public statements indicating that political affiliation may have been a consideration in the administration's employment decisions, including those at La Fortaleza. In addressing the press on the topic of government layoffs generally, Governor Fortuño flatly stated that "none of them voted for him," in reference to the employees who might be terminated. When specifically responding to criticism by a group of terminated employees who were protesting at La Fortaleza, Blanco made disparaging comments about the prior PDP administration and acknowledged that the fired employees were part of that administration. Berlingeri similarly made disparaging remarks about the prior administration when addressing criticism by a group of terminated employees.

B. Procedural Background

The plaintiffs brought suit in federal district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, supplemented by claims brought under the laws and Constitution of Puerto Rico. They alleged three constitutional violations in the termination of their employment: political discrimination in violation of the First Amendment, deprivation of a property interest without due process of law, and the denial of equal protection.

At an initial case conference in April 2009, the district court informed the plaintiffs that their complaint satisfied the federal notice pleading standard, and it advised the defendants not to file a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the complaint. In May 2009, however, the district court scheduled an emergency hearing motu proprio to hear arguments on whether the recently issued Iqbal decision required the complaint to be dismissed due to insufficient factual allegations. At that hearing, the defendants officially moved to dismiss the complaint. The court denied the defendants' motion without prejudice and granted the plaintiffs thirty days to amend their complaint to comply with Iqbal. The plaintiffs timely filed an amended complaint, and the defendants again moved to dismiss. After a hearing, the district court dismissed the amended complaint for failure to state a claim. 2

C. The District Court Opinion

The district court began its opinion and order in this case by dismissing all claims against three of the four defendants -- Governor Fortuño, First Lady Vela, and Blanco. According to the court, the factual allegations in the complaint failed to show with the required specificity that those three defendants had caused the plaintiffs' terminations. The court described the plaintiffs' case against those defendants as resting on "an implicit assumption that the defendants' [sic] participated in the decision" because of their positions of authority. It noted that "no additional factual allegations, such as interactions between the defendants and particular plaintiffs, . . . tie Fortuño, Vela, and Blanco to the deprivation of the plaintiffs' constitutional rights."

The district court did find, however, that the plaintiffs had "minimally satisfied" their burden of pleading Berlingeri's participation in the terminations, "since the plaintiffs allege that she signed the letter which officially separated the plaintiffs from their employment at La Fortaleza." It nevertheless concluded that the plaintiffs' political discrimination claim failed because the complaint lacked sufficient factual allegations to show that Berlingeri had knowledge of the plaintiffs' political affiliation or that political affiliation played a role in the termination decision: "The fact that Berlingeri may have made disparaging remarks about the previous administration does not lead to the conclusion that she thought or knew that plaintiffs were PDP members or supporters." It found that "the same can be said" with respect to the plaintiffs' allegations that Berlingeri's trusted aide was a staunch NPP supporter, wore the party's logo, and...

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