Political Bias Case From Puerto Revived on Appeal

     (CN) – The 1st Circuit revived claims that political party officials in Pueto Rico reduced the workloads of public employees who voted for the other side.
     While the New Progressive Party wants to maintain the current political status of Puerto as a self-governed, unincorporated territory of the United States, the Popular Democratic Party wants Puerto Rico to become its own sovereign nation.
     When NPP assumed control of the political administration, several higher-ups within the party allegedly discriminated against various public employees by relieving them of their job responsibilities and eliminating their travel allowances.
     Juan Mendez-Cruz, Luis Medina-Velazquez and Gladys Rivera-Berdecia, members of the Popular Democratic Party, and two of their spouses, claimed in a federal complaint that their affiliations and activism led to reduction in their supervisory powers at work with the Department of Transportation and Public Works.
     They sued higher-ups with the New Progressive Party, including Ruben Hernandez-Gregoriat and Moises Deida-Garcia.
     As employees in “trust” positions, Mendez-Cruz and the others said they served at the pleasure of an appointing authority. They lost supervisory authority with reassignment of their subordinates to others, and were not permitted to attend meetings.
     A federal judge dismissed the claims for violations of the First Amendment, however after finding that the plaintiffs could not prove that the defendants knew their political affiliations.
     After the court asked for subsequent letters to describe their dissatisfaction with reduced duties on the basis of political affiliation, it approved a subsequent settlement between the parties.
     The workers then moved to alter the judgment dismissing their First Amendment claims, however, arguing that their case was warranted “because it had become clear through discovery that the agency had a politically charged environment and that political animus motivated personnel decisions,” according to the ruling.
     Finding the request unwarranted and untimely, the trial court said he would not give the plaintffs a “second bite at the apple, simply because co-plaintiffs who properly plead[ed] claims [were] able to engage in discovery.”
     The court also declined to “piggyback on settling plaintiffs’ success and evidence obtained,” according to the ruling.
     In reversing Wednesday, a three-judge panel with the 1st Circuit said the plaintiffs stated a plausible free-speech case.
     “The First Amendment prohibits government officials from taking adverse actions against public employees on the basis of political affiliation, unless political association is an appropriate factor for employment,” Judge Kermit Lipez wrote for the three-judge panel in Boston.
     “This is not a case in which a single employee was fired or reassigned, and then sought to blame his supervisor for acting with an animus based on party affiliation,” Lipez added. “Rather, they complain in this case alleges that, after a change in party control from the PDP to the NPP, there commenced a systematic and more or less simultaneous effort to essentially reassign and eliminate all the duties and responsibilities of the nine plaintiffs, all active PDP members who held trust positions during PDP administrations and non-trust supervisory positions at the start of the new NPP administration.”
     Lipez continued: “The common modus operandi alleged in the complaint required the active and sustained participation of the plaintiffs’ superiors on multiple levels. The same modus operandi was employed with regard to nine different people in numerous regions of the department.”
     Evidence, including the letters the workers wrote in outlining their grievances, shows “the atmosphere in appellants’ workplace was politically charged,” according to the ruling.

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