(CN) -The 1st Circuit vacated a Puerto Rican jury’s finding of due process violations against 28 ranger cadets who claimed they were fired because of their political affiliations.
The Boston-based appellate panel affirmed the jury’s award of $19,000 each for First Amendment violations against seven of the original 36 members of a ranger cadet class that was fired en mass after a new governor took office, but found that the due process claims could not stand.
Defendants, three administrators of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, had qualified immunity because the cadets were “transitory employees,” according to the three-judge panel.
The cadets sued department Secretary Salvador Salas-Quintana and others in 2002, claiming that they’d been terminated due to their membership in the New Progressive Party, which had been ousted from power by the Popular Democratic Party in the 2000 gubernatorial election.
After the election, the cadets say they were kept on for a time, but were never given the training they were promised and were never promoted to full rangers. The department eventually terminated all of the cadets, claiming they had failed to “comply with the requirement of a psychological evaluation,” they claimed.
At trial, the new administration’s legal adviser, Ferdinand Lugo-González, testified that the Popular Democratic Party wanted to fire the cadets because they had been appointed under the previous administration.
The cadets alleged that defendants violated their First Amendment rights by firing them due to their political affiliation, and violated their due process rights by failing to give them notice or a hearing in connection with their termination.
After hearing “ample evidence permitting a reasonable jury to conclude that their dismissals were the result of discrimination,” the jury awarded $19,000 in compensatory damages to 28 cadets for due process violations and $19,000 in punitive damages to seven of the cadets for First Amendment violations. The jury refused to reinstate the cadets, however.
Defendants sought a new trial while the cadets asked for reinstatement, but the district court denied both motions.
The defendants appealed, and the 1st Circuit vacated the due process awards, finding that the cadets did not have a valid due process claim because they were transitory employees.
“The plaintiffs were hired under bylaws that required that they receive training, and the successful completion of that training would result in their becoming non-transitory employees,” wrote Judge Kermit Lipez. “However, they were also indisputably transitory employees whose term had expired when they were discharged. Qualified immunity, therefore, shielded the defendants from the due process claims of the plaintiffs.”
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