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Ocasio-Hernandez v. Fortuno-Burset

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

January 20, 2015

CARMEN M. OCASIO-HERNÁNDEZ, GERARDO PIZARRO-PIZARRO, JORGE L. RODRÍGUEZ-FIGUEROA, Á NGEL L. FIGUEROA-ROLÓ N, HÉ CTOR G. GUERRERO-FRAU, DIANA D. RODRÍGUEZ-VICENTE, NYDIA DÍAZ-FRANCISCO, CARLOS SANTOS-RIVERA, JUAN CARRASQUILLO-LÓ PEZ, FELÍCITA RIVERA-BÁ EZ, IVÁ N RIVERA-CANALES, WILLIAM BURGOS-CASTELLANOS, VÍCTOR M. CAMACHO-PIZARRO, Á NGEL BÁ EZ-TORRES, JOHN DOE-01, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP DOE-OCASIO, JANE DOE-01, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP PIZARRO-DOE, JANE DOE-02, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP RODRÍGUEZ-DOE, JANE DOE-03, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP FIGUEROA-DOE, JANE DOE-04, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP GUERRERO-DOE, JOHN DOE-02, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP DOE-RODRÍGUEZ, JOHN DOE-03, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP DOE-DÍAZ, JANE DOE-05, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP SANTOS-DOE, JANE DOE-06, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP CARRASQUILLO-DOE, JANE DOE-07, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP RIVERA-DOE, JOHN DOE-04, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP CARRASQUILLO-DOE, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP RIVERA-DOE; CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP DOE-RIVERA, JANE DOE-08, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP BURGOS-DOE, JANE DOE-09, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP CAMACHO-DOE, JANE DOE-10, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP BÁ EZ-DOE, Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
LUIS G. FORTUÑO-BURSET, in his personal capacity and as Governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, LUCÉ VELA, in her individual and official capacity as First Lady, VELMARIE BERLINGERI-MARÍN, in her individual and official capacity as Administrator of the Governor's Mansion, JUAN CARLOS BLANCO, in his individual and official capacity as Chief of Staff, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP FORTUÑ O-VELA, JOHN DOE, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP DOE-BERLINGERI, JANE DOE, CONJUGAL PARTNERSHIP BLANCO-DOE, Defendants, Appellees

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO. Hon. Gustavo A. Gelpí, U.S. District Judge.

Carlos Antonio Del Valle Cruz, with whom Eileen Landrón Guardiola, Eduardo Vera Ramí rez, Luis A. Rodríguez Muñoz, and Landrón & Vera, LLP were on brief, for appellants.

Margarita Mercado-Echegaray, Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for appellees.

Before Torruella, Thompson, and Barron, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 2

THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.

In 2009, the plaintiffs -- fourteen maintenance, domestic, and warehouse workers -- embarked on a quest to seek some relief after being abruptly fired from the Puerto Rico executive mansion shortly after a newly elected governor took the helm.[1] The plaintiffs -- to whom we'll refer as " the workers" -- sued then-Governor Luis Fortuño-Burset (" Fortuño" ), his wife, and two executive staffers, alleging that they were terminated solely because they affiliated with Fortuño's rival political parties. The firings, the workers have maintained, amounted to political discrimination prohibited by the First Amendment.

After six years and two appeals, this voyage has reached its end -- for the reasons discussed below, we affirm the district

Page 3

court's summary judgment disposal of the workers' political discrimination claim.[2]

I. BACKGROUND

A. The Factual Skeleton

Because we are reviewing a summary judgment motion, we recite the facts " in a light as favorable to [the workers] as the record will reasonably allow." Velázquez-Pérez v. Developers Diversified Realty Corp., 753 F.3d 265, 267 (1st Cir. 2014).

In November 2008, Fortuño, of Puerto Rico's New Progressive political party (" NPP" ), defeated the incumbent, a member of the NPP's primary rival, to become Puerto Rico's newly elected governor. Fortuño took office on January 2, 2009, bringing on board a chief of staff, Juan Carlos Blanco-Urrutia (" Blanco" ), and an administrator, Velmarie Berlingeri-Marí n (" Berlingeri" ). Through an executive order, Fortuño authorized Berlingeri to " take any necessary actions and sign any necessary official documents related to the administration of the Office of the Governor," which included administering the executive mansion, where the governor lived and worked.

A few days after taking office, Fortuño issued another executive order declaring a statewide fiscal emergency, authorizing a hiring freeze across state agencies, and requiring certain spending cuts. The executive order required each state agency to eliminate thirty percent of " all authorized trust service positions." Relevant to this case, " trust service" employees -- one of several categories of employment types within the Puerto Rico government -- could be " freely remove[d]," or, in other words, terminated without cause.

Shortly after the executive order was issued, each of the plaintiffs (all of whom were trust employees)[3] was let go either in February or March 2009, by way of written termination letters signed by Berlingeri. The termination letters (which were all identical in substance) did not provide a specific reason for the firings, citing only to the regulations allowing for " trust service" employees to be " freely selected and freely dismissed." Berlingeri has since asserted that some of the workers were fired -- based on the recommendation of their immediate supervisors -- because of their poor work performance; others, she claimed, were fired due to the budget cuts.

B. The (Long) Procedural History

Wasting no time, in March 2009, the workers sued Fortuño, his chief of staff (Blanco), his administrator (Berlingeri), and his wife, First Lady Luz E. Vela-Gutié rrez (" Vela" ), asserting that each of the defendants had a role in their allegedly unlawful terminations and claiming they were fired because they affiliated with non-NPP political parties. The workers' complaint brought § 1983 claims,[4] alleging violation of their due process and equal ...


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